The mountain air was fresh and brisk. Civilization felt far away while Lara Merriken hiked the Rockies. But even though her spirit felt nourished, her body hungered for fuel. In what she calls an “intuitive moment.” she asked herself a rhetorical – and prophetic – question: “Why isn’t there a delicious and indulgent snack made of wholesome foods?”
It was the Spring of 2000 and the mission had begun. Lara set out to create all-natural foods that would be pure, simple and delicious, using just a handful of ingredients whose names even a child can pronounce. Imagine real fruit and nuts, unaltered but for a secret spice blend. No added sugar, dairy, soy or gluten. Unprocessed. Raw. Non-GMO. Vegan. Kosher.
And best of all: It tastes great and is nutritionally filling. No wonder sales reached $20 million in 2006! Oh, and did we mention the chocolate bars?
“The day after I got the idea, I went out and bought a Cuisinart and started experimenting. I bought fruit and nuts from health food stores. I visited the ice cream and cookie aisles of supermarkets to get ideas for yummy flavors.
“I’d bring test batches to my friends’ offices. My friends and family were my focus groups. Thankfully, they were honest. The hardest thing is to get an honest response from friends and family because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.
“They not only gave feedback about the bars, but they really inspired me to keep going. They’d ask, ‘Can I buy them from you now?'”
College Athlete and Would-be Doctor
“I was a social worker before I started LÄRABAR.
“I’ve always had a passion for health and nutrition. I played volleyball in college. Like most young adults, I was eating a lot of junk food. Our coach taught us to eat healthy. That was the start of my journey.
“I love taking care of myself. I like the way I feel.
“I was very interested in natural medicine and nutrition and studied what’s called ‘naturopathic medicine.'”
The First 500, All Handmade
“There was nothing like our bars when we started. So, we couldn’t find the right equipment or kitchen. We made the first 500 bars by hand. It was 2003, three years after the initial idea, and we got the bars into a few Colorado stores.”
From Cuisinart to Whole Foods
“Manufacturing started out in my own kitchen and I still do all the product development with the same Cuisinart. This year, we’ll make 40-50 million bars. Now we have what we call a strategic partner doing the manufacturing for us. The manufacturing network has people from 20 different countries and is providing jobs for local residents. I train everyone to the look, feel and taste of the bars. I don’t farm this out. Quality control and a quality product are important. I want people to trust what we’re making.”
For Hire: Someone To Do… Anything!
“LÄRABAR has 25 employees today. Right when I launched the company, my second hire was my father as chief operating officer. I hired other staff as needed. Then, the job titles were ‘do anything.’ I needed people who could help do it all from shipping to answering the phones.”
“I raised $150,000 from friends and family by word of mouth. I wrote a business plan and put the word out to people who knew I had been working on this for two years. Most of my investors came to me, and that’s how I wanted it to be. I didn’t want people who expected a quick return. I wanted people who really believed in the idea and still do.”
“LÄRABAR is now sold nationally (in Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Wild Oats and select supermarkets and specialty shops; search online at www.larabar.com) and internationally in 13 countries.”
“I’m involved now as intimately as in the beginning. I might do product development, making product and some strategic planning – a total mix. My duties have evolved, but I’m still very much involved in day-to-day operations.
Not Just Chocolate, JŎCALAT
“We introduced JŎCALAT last November. I had visited Mexican cocoa plantations and learned how chocolate was grown.
I learned that it doesn’t have to have sugar and dairy. You can use the real thing to make a bar that tastes amazing.
The name comes from the 18th Century Old English-French word for chocolate.”
What’s With The Umlaut?
“We added the umlaut to LÄRABAR because we needed a creative way to show the proper pronunciation. We also thought it would make the name more visually interesting.”
“Our goal is to be innovative and to make more wonderful Humm Foods. That’s my parent company and it’s named for the feeling of health and well-being you get when you eat real food. Authentically, healthy food makes you want to hum.”
Running With Lester
“I love running. I love the feeling of being outside without many people, when you can hear the birds and connect with nature. I run through a beautiful park with lakes. My dog Lester comes with me. He’s a yellow Labrador and a big part of our company. My husband sometimes runs with us, too. Occasionally, I hike if I can manage a trip to the mountains. I do yoga and play tennis once in a while, but mostly I run.”
“In the beginning, our biggest challenges were finding a place to manufacture our product and convincing suppliers that the business was viable. We had five deals that all fell through at the last minute.
“We acquired used equipment and found kitchen space and we self-manufactured for the first year. We had to take matters into our own hands.”
“At that moment, we had to dig deep, have faith and persevere. It was a good lesson for me to learn early on because it’s not always easy in business. Success is not without the hard work of challenges.”
Always a Solution
“What was once a thorn in our side has become a source of strength. We worked through it and realized that there’s always a solution. That’s the biggest lesson I learned. You just have to keep looking for new ideas, to challenge yourself to do that.”
“We feared, ‘What if nobody likes this product?’ Our success has been that we’ve brought something to our community and society that really contributes positively to people’s lives. That’s our greatest success story.”
Recipe Ror Relaxation
“I use my down time to do things that really recharge my batteries. I meditate. I spend time with my husband and our friends. I read, exercise and travel for pleasure to stimulate my mind.”
Power To The Launchers
“I’d advise launchers to stay true to your vision. Surround yourself with people who support you. Don’t fear risks. Persevere because anything is possible and you can make it happen.”
This Featured Lady was profiled by Andrea Adleman, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.