Bryan Capitano of Portland had been in the web design industry since the late 1990s, running a number of different web companies and software startups, when a few years ago, he wanted to try something different.
He needed a new challenge, and before too long, assisted by a recent lifestyle change to a paleo diet, he found one.
Bryan recalls, “I had experimented with super low-carb diets and things like that. And I just wasn’t healthy on those kinds of things. But I noticed that when I was off of grains and wasn’t eating bread, I lost weight easier. I had tons more energy, and I felt better in general. It was just figuring out what worked for me, and then I saw the paleo diet and it was like, ‘Well, that seems like sort of a low-carb thing, but much healthier.’ So I tried that and it just really rocks. It works for me.”
After starting the diet, “I’d go into grocery stores and look for paleo bars or snacks on the shelves, and there was nothing. There was an empty space for it, and it was like, perfect. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to make a paleo bar.”
The crazy thing was, Bryan had absolutely zero food product making experience. But there was something intriguing about it. “I loved the learning experience of diving into something that I know nothing about. It was a fun challenge.”
Two weeks (and seven months) to a paleo breakthrough
So he and his wife did some internet recipe research, went to their kitchen, and started to make bars. That wasn’t a scary proposition for Bryan. “I love spending time in the kitchen cooking. It’s one of the things that I kind of do for de-stressing. So coming up with recipes didn’t scare me at all.”
Over the course of an intense two weeks of baking “My wife and I made probably a half a dozen batches of different bars and were like, ‘I like this one, I don’t like that one’, winnowing it down to something that we did like.”
With a winner selected, Bryan needed to find some willing outside taste-testers and initial buyers. He had a friend competing in cycle races who suggested to him that the races would be a perfect place to pass them out and get some feedback.
But he still needed to come up with some packaging, and true to his fearless spirit, he simply put the bars in brown parchment and wax paper, wrapped them in garden twine and wrote “GROK Bar” on them.
The name came from the paleo community. As Bryan explains, “I’d been following some paleo bloggers, and that community had adopted the name ‘grok’ as a nickname for ‘ancient caveman’”. That was the catalyst. He started kicking around names in his head, “Grok, caveman….the caveman bar……the GROK Bar. Perfect, that’s it. The GROK Bar!”
Bryan started attending the cycle races and got a lot of positive feedback, leading to a return to the kitchen and a few tweaks to the recipe, and a need to take the packaging and the brand messaging up a few notches.
Like most enterprising startup founders short on cash but rich in connections and know-how, he was able to work a few trade deals with graphic designers, getting them to do logo and packaging design in exchange for web design work.
After more success selling bars direct to consumers at cycle and running races, Bryan hit an inflection point – to generate the sales necessary to really make the business work, he needed to outsource his manufacturing and distribution.
“I looked for a co-packer, and that was a bit of a challenge, because most co-packers want you to buy like 50,000 to 100,000 units. I didn’t have the check to write for that. I didn’t have the market to distribute 50,000 bars to people. So I had to find a small batch co-packer.”
By reading the back of similar locally-made bars at his local New Seasons, he was able to track down a small-batch company in Salem, Oregon.
As Bryan recalls, “I called them up and said, ‘Hey, I got a bar. You guys want to make it?’, and they said ‘Come on down. Let’s talk about it.’ So I brought some samples, and they said, ‘This is a great bar. We’d love to make it.’ They could make anywhere from 1,000 to like 30,000 a month, so it was a great stepping stone.”
So for just a “few hundred bucks” of upfront capital he was able to generate a template to stamp out the bars, and after adding in the cost of the ingredients and labor, Bryan put in his first order of 500 – a mere 7 months after baking that first GROK bar in his home kitchen.
Soon after, GROK bars were found on the shelves at New Seasons Market, Made in Oregon stores and some local food co-ops.
The challenges and struggles of the food startup
Getting on those crowded shelves looks like a daunting task, but Bryan noted that “At first I was a little nervous, because I’m not really a cold-call salesman, but I had some other friends in the food industry, and they’re like, ‘You know, this is really easy. You just contact their food buyers, and say hey, I got a product. I think you might be interested in it.’ So I did that once or twice, and after that, I wasn’t nervous anymore.”
In the future, Bryan would love to get into national chains like Whole Foods and Costco, but at present he’s focusing more on direct-to-consumer sales because those margins lead to better profitability.
Also, like any product producer concerned about margins and brand, he’s constantly thinking about issues like price, shrinking the bar size (their 2.4 ounce bar is currently one of the largest in the market), upgrading the packaging, and expanding the flavors (right now there are just two – almond cranberry and hazelnut almond).
And as the business grows there’s always the hurdle of getting the appropriate capital and financing. Bryan noted “The struggle has always been funding because I don’t want to take on investors. I’m just self-funding and growing organically, and my wife and some family members have helped out a little bit. So funding has been a bit of a barrier, but I think it could also be considered a good thing because it hasn’t like exploded the business to the point where I don’t know how to manage it. It’s allowed me to grow with the business as a manager, as the business grows itself”.
But in any case, GROK bars have quickly made their mark on a Oregon health bar market that was looking for great tasting paleo alternatives, exceeding Bryan’s originally modest expectations when he was cranking out bars in his kitchen.
“You know, when I first started, I’m like, ‘Well, I’ll make a handful of bars and see if some friends and family will buy them’, and, it would be so wonderful if I got into New Seasons and the Made in Oregon store. I achieved those goals much faster than I thought, and easier than I thought. So it kind of surprised me.”
“Although there were a couple of periods during the summer of last year where I was spending several days in the kitchen, making bars one by one, and then driving out to a lot of sporting events. I said ‘I can’t do this. I’m getting tired of this. I want to quit.’ But then once I transitioned to the co-packer and that weight got lifted, and the sales started going up, and I started getting into stores, I said ‘Okay, this is going…I like the trajectory of this”
Just get started: sharing perspective
Bryan also offers great advice to someone thinking about starting a food or product business of their own.
“I have a lot of friends and other people that dream about starting businesses, but they draw up a lot of roadblocks on why they can’t do it. And my advice is just to get started. You’ll find that once you get the ball in motion, people are willing to help you, and you overcome the roadblocks faster and easier than you thought you would, just with like any startup.”
And for this native-born Oregonian (he’s from Beaverton), his community, and the state’s reputation as a collaborative and helpful place to have ideas blossom, have also been a great plus.
“Oregon, and Portland in particular, has a really creative maker ethos behind it, and I’m sure that that helped tremendously. The colleagues that I leaned on, my graphic designers, my PR and marketing people and other people that helped me along the way, they’ve all started businesses as well. And so, here it’s ‘I scratch your back, you scratch my back.’ I have to believe that that spirit is much stronger here in Portland than it probably is in other places.”
Indeed, where else can a web designer with no previous experience in food products blend a personal lifestyle and diet choice with a strong desire to launch a product, come up with something as unique and flavorful as the GROK bar, and get it into the stores within 7 months of whipping up the first bar in his home kitchen?
Only in Oregon. With thanks to the caveman, of course.