How Did This Happen?
I never wanted to be an entrepreneur growing up. I certainly didn’t imagine myself in the food business. I started Picky Bars because I was injured after the 2008 Olympic Trials, fresh off barely missing the Olympic Team, and sick of having my life solely defined by professional sport with my happiness so closely tied to my body’s ability to stay healthy. With a new titanium screw in my navicular bone and 18 months of rehab ahead, I looked for projects to immerse myself in to avoid depression.
Naturally I turned my Mrs-Fix-It energy toward the person I shared a home with, my husband Jesse Thomas, an MBA student with a new passion for triathlon, the combination of which (tons of exercise + lots of food and beer consumption) was resulting in some unwanted gas. Truth be told, this was nothing new for Jesse. His nickname growing up was Rover due to his wafting aromas, especially after pizza night. He won’t mind me writing this because, as my Gamy used to say, “everyone farts, even the Queen,” and to omit it would be to leave the motivation to build Picky Bars an awkward mystery. I was highly motivated. And bored. But mostly, it seemed like a straightforward problem to fix and I needed a confidence booster.
“What comes in must go out.” Another gem from Gamy that made me pretty sure I could fix this. Some foods always caused problems: pizza, pulled pork, ice cream. One could hypothetically “easily avoid” these most of the time by not building one’s primary diet around them. But even when Jesse avoided the obvious, sometimes stomach distress seemed to come out of nowhere. Food that were previously safe did him in. This seemed to correlate with how much he was working out. The more he trained, the more sensitive he became. But identifying the culprits in these cases led to a hilarious game of “maybe it’s” that existed back in 2000 when we started dating.
“Maybe it’s smoothies.”
“Maybe it’s lettuce.”
“Maybe it’s cottage cheese.”
“Maybe it’s soup.”
“Maybe it’s apples.”
“Maybe it’s [insert whatever was eaten in the 48 hours prior to the dropping of a bomb].”
Triathlon training took “maybe it’s” to a new level of frequency that was really getting in the way of me sitting around feeling sorry for myself in an aroma free home, so I decided to solve the problem once and for all. I directed an elimination experiment. It worked. Not eating gluten, diary, highly processed foods, high fiber, (and randomly pork products), fixed the problem 95-100%. When he wasn’t working out much, he had way more flexibility, but as training increased, so did gut sensitivity. Staying hydrated helped buffer him as well. But once he dialed in his new training diet, there was celebration all around.
Changing how we cooked was easy. I had never enjoyed cooking more in my life. And the food was close to the source, varied, and awesome. The only problem was convenience food for training. Bars, basically. We were totally sold by this point on real food fuel, so we tested the best on the market for unprocessed recognizability (minus gluten, dairy, soy), and wound up with Lara and Kind, neither of which were balanced appropriately. With a human biology degree and a decade of fine tuning nutrition for my own athletic and body composition goals, I knew what I wanted. It just didn’t exist. A real food product with high ingredient standards that was intentionally balanced based on sports nutrition principles did not exist. So I made one.
Well, trays full, for the triathlete. And me. I shared them with friends. And one friend in particular was very excited: Steph Bruce. Chasing her own gastric distress mystery while marathon training, my bars were the first thing she found that worked. The principles I was using to guide me resonated with her experience. She convinced me that there were other people out there who would benefit from having these in their cupboard, their jersey pocket, their backpack, their scrubs, and offered to help make it a business. Mind you, she knew about as much as I did about starting a business, but what she had that I didn’t was this completely unshakeable belief that this bar would make it. And that it would be a waste not to do it. It was simply a matter of going for it. Of belief. That was how she raced, and trained. She was the no-name marathoner that could…and she did. She kicked a bunch of thoroughbreds asses, broke 2:30 in the marathon, raced in multiple Olympic Trials, popped out two boys in 15 months, became a beacon for body positivity, and hasn’t stopped yet. Steph is a legend.
Picky Bars got it’s name in a casual conversation between Steph, Jesse and I when we realized that in order to sell it and have a website, we had to name it. I don’t even remember who said it first, I just remember that it sounded right, and we quickly moved on to the next thing: making stickers on powerpoint that would go on the dime bags we slid the bars into. This was before the gluten free craze, or the full-blown real food movement, or when everyone had hand written lettering fonts. Our brand was authentic, purposeful, goofy, us…brought into living color by Jesse’s cousin, Loren Polster. We got my home kitchen certified, learned about FDA compliance, and got to work. I learned about creating a brand, writing copy, social media, customer service, operations, WordPress, shopping carts.
For the first time since college, I felt like more than a runner. I was learning, growing. I was making forward human progress without needing to run a step. I didn’t care if Picky Bars made it long-term really. I was invested in the present. In solving problems one by one. When it inevitably fell apart within the year (Why wouldn’t it? Who are we to start a food business?) I would go back to racing knowing that one day I could do something else and at least have some work experience within the previous decade to call on. Maybe I’d even start something of my own again…they say the second time is easier.
I’m writing this 7+ years later, and Picky Bars now has 11 employees, a healthy online business, a vibrant subscription club called the Picky Club, and distribution around the country in select grocery, outdoor, and specialty retail environments. Jesse is the CEO, is now a kickass pro triathlete, and holds the record for most Picky Bars consumed by a long shot. Steph moved to Flagstaff after the early years to pursue world class racing, coaching, and momming with her husband Ben, and remains our strongest advocate for those with food sensitivities as she navigates celiac disease and elite performance.
As for me, I have made the recipes and function in the role of part-time CMO and part time advisor to the CEO (there’s no escaping that one when you’re married). I love what we have built. I love that we are still small and vulnerable and therefore care deeply. I love hearing people say our bars are the only thing that doesn’t upset their stomach on the run. I love that when I see someone in a Picky Bars tee or hat I want to hug them. I don’t love the risk, the wearing of multiple hats when working with your partner, the feeling of screwing up when it affects others. Those things have been some of the artist’s tools that have sculpted my 30’s, sometimes painfully. Hard things leave marks; overall I like what’s emerging.
To learn more about Picky Bars, head over to pickybars.com. Lauren’s Mega Nuts, Moroccan Your World, Chai and Catch Me, and Fudge Nuts are the house favorites.