(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GUY RAZ, HOST:
What happened to that name?
LARA MERRIKEN: Well, the trademarking attorney called me at the eleventh hour, and we were getting ready to launch - it was the year 2002, summer - and she said, I think you're going to need to change the name. And I just thought, you're joking, right? I've left working at Whole Foods. And we're supposed to be launching, but we don't launch. And everybody's backing out because nothing's happening.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: From NPR, it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show, how Lara Merriken threw dates, cashews and dried cherries into her Cuisinart and turned that mushy mix into Larabars, one of the best-selling energy bars in America.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: So if you've recently walked to the energy bar section of the supermarket, you might be surprised - or rather overwhelmed - by the number of choices. I mean, for starters, there are hundreds of different types of energy bars, which is kind of crazy if you think about it. There are protein bars and paleo bars and Whole30 and vegan and gluten free and cacao infused with matcha powder. There is probably an energy bar out there for each and every one of us. And that whole revolution, it really got started in the 1990s with Clif Bar. And if you've heard previous episodes of this show, you might have heard our interview with Gary Erickson who actually invented those Clif Bars.
Well, in the early 2000s, Lara Merriken came up with a pretty simple concept that shockingly wasn't really out there in the world. It was an energy bar made from two or three raw ingredients - like almonds or cashews - all bound together with dates. Now, Larabars may not seem like a big deal today, right? You can get them pretty much anywhere - any 7-Eleven. But back in the day, they were kind of revolutionary. And how she even came to inventing them to building this brand - well, there was no direct path. Lara never intended to start her own business or even to sell a product.
She grew up in the Denver area. Her parents ran a pretty successful high-end clothing store, and Lara was really into sports. She was actually good enough to make the USC women's volleyball team. But after she graduated from college with a degree in psychology, she wasn't really sure what to do. So she came back to Denver and got a job as a social worker. And she started to work with kids and teenagers who needed help.
MERRIKEN: It was hard - I mean, just emotionally difficult job. It was intense. It was always chaotic. We were on call every six weeks. I had to - this is at a time where I had to carry a pager around. Remember the pager days? And if the pager went off at 2 in the morning because somebody ran away from our treatment facility, you had to answer the phone call. But it was intense work. And to see, you know, 15-year-old girls - actually, 13-year-old girls with kids - and I had to manage their care with the judicial system. I went to court a lot. I made recommendations. It was one of the most stressful jobs I've ever had in my life, and I was in my early '20s.
RAZ: How long did it take you before you got burnt out?
MERRIKEN: Like a year and a half (laughter).
RAZ: So about a year and a half you're doing this, and you just decide this is not for me?
MERRIKEN: I knew I needed to change what the landscape looked like. So I wanted to help these kids, but I wanted to do it in more of a recreational component. I didn't want to feel like I was the police all the time. And so I became a community involvement leader, and I got these kids involved in the community.
RAZ: How long did you do that for?
MERRIKEN: About four years. I really loved being in the more recreational component with these kids and kind of opening their eyes to a bigger world and hoping that they saw opportunity for themselves. That was very gratifying.
RAZ: Like you would play like sports with them and take them for like nature walks and stuff like that?
MERRIKEN: I would do anything and everything. I mean, we went to a natural food grocery store one day and got a tour of that. And then I would take them to Rockies games because somebody would donate the tickets. And then we had the cat petting club, and I'd take them to the local animal shelter because they couldn't have pets in their homes. And then we would have our community garden. And so it was a year-round program. They'd come after school. And then during the summer, I basically ran a summer camp. And then I would teach them how to cook and do arts and crafts. I mean, anything I could think of to do I would do.
RAZ: So this was like your MBA. That was your management training.
MERRIKEN: (Laughter) It was good. It was really fun. I mean, to this day, I still think about these children. And I wonder where they are, what's happened, what they're doing. So during this time that I was being a social worker - working as a social worker, I was also cultivating this passion for natural foods.
RAZ: How did that happen?
MERRIKEN: Well, so let's go back to college - college volleyball. Our coach had a rule of no sugar and no red meat. So at the time, I was totally into junk food. I was 18 years old. You know, my favorite place to eat was any fast food restaurant you can name. And then I - all of a sudden, I've stopped eating sugar and no red meat.
RAZ: And he - and just to be clear, he felt that no red meat and no sugar would result in better performance from his players?
RAZ: And did he, like, enforce this rule?
MERRIKEN: Oh, yes.
RAZ: This wasn't a joke. This was real.
MERRIKEN: No. This was very real. Like, it was a rule on the team. And...
RAZ: And that was - by the way, it must've been an intense team. I mean, that's Division I volleyball USC, which is a major, like, Pac-10 school.
MERRIKEN: Oh, yes (laughter). I remember thinking I can't believe I have the opportunity to play volleyball on this team. I will do anything this man tells me to do. And then I - all of a sudden I stop eating sugar and no red meat. It was really an interesting experience. So I started feeling better. So that was the first light bulb that went off for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MERRIKEN: Post college I'm - you know, I'm working as a social worker, I start doing all this reading. And then I started having migraines. I started getting migraines out of nowhere. I had never had them. And I got a blood test and learned that I was actually very allergic to wheat.
RAZ: Wow. You had been eating wheat your whole life and after college you discovered this?
MERRIKEN: Yes. I mean, wheat's in...
MERRIKEN: ...Everything. So this is in the early '90s at the time, and there wasn't really many options. And their solution to this is stop eating wheat. And I'm thinking, well, what am I going to eat? So at the time, I didn't even really know how to cook much. You know, I grew up with two working parents. My mom went to school, and it was just, like frozen food...
RAZ: She was not slaving over the stove every night...
RAZ: Right. OK.
MERRIKEN: No. It was very much convenient food oriented, so I really didn't even know how to cook. Well, I had to learn how to cook for myself because I had such a limited diet. And I got introduced to natural foods at the time. So things like kale and quinoa and all the things that we kind of know now as normal were totally foreign to me.
RAZ: Especially in the mid-'90s, like...
MERRIKEN: It was weird...
MERRIKEN: ...To me at first. And then I had - I thought, well, I'm going to embrace this. And so I would read everything I could about recipes and nutrition and I just got into it. And I made the most of it.
MERRIKEN: So then I started thinking to myself in the background of going through this whole experience and feeling better - I thought, I don't know. I love natural foods. This makes such - this is common sense to me. Why don't people know about this? Why isn't somebody teaching us about healthy food? And so my passion started to build.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: So I guess at a certain point you stopped working with kids and - did you find another job or did you kind of start to just - like, did you start to think about what you had to - what you wanted to do?
MERRIKEN: Well, I knew I had an excitement and passion for natural foods. I just didn't know how I was going to make a transition between being a social worker and natural foods. They were two completely different worlds.
RAZ: What was going on in your personal life? Were you single at the time?
MERRIKEN: I was married and I was in the middle of getting a divorce.
MERRIKEN: So it was a huge change for me, and I realized that I needed to get a divorce in the middle of all of this.
RAZ: So you were young - a young woman, married and getting divorced.
MERRIKEN: Yes. And thinking about changing my career in a matter of, like, six months.
RAZ: And what were you thinking about doing at that point?
MERRIKEN: I didn't know. But all I knew is that I needed to find the courage to take a leap of faith. And somehow, some way I figured that out for myself. And I left my marriage, I left my job and decided I'm going to go back to school and I'm going to study - I want to get into naturopathic medical school.
RAZ: And naturopathic is, like, natural, like, homeopathic remedies and stuff?
MERRIKEN: Yes. So there is a school in Seattle, Wash., and one in Portland, Ore., in naturopathic medicine. And I thought, I'm going to practice that, which covers all natural medicine - nutrition, acupuncture, everything. And that's what I really - I think that's the direction I want to go. I looked at the school for years - really renowned school - I thought, this is what I'm going to do. So I started taking chemistry and physics and all these science classes at the local community college. And actually I moved back out to California. My parents were living out there.
So I'm on my path of taking classes, and I meet a friend of mine - a dear friend of mine now - one day eating at the local health food store. We're eating lunch. And he drags me to this raw food class, and I have one of the most amazing meals I've ever had in my life at this class. And I thought, wow, raw foods are kind of amazing. And it just never had occurred to me. And meanwhile, I'm taking my classes, I got accepted to this program - two schools, one in Seattle and one in Washington.
And I thought, I'm going to be a naturopathic doctor. That's what I'm going to do. And I went to a meeting with all the doctors in California, and they were very limited in their scope of practice there at the time because the laws weren't open there. And I went to this meeting and it was like April. I was moving to Seattle in July of that year.
RAZ: This is like this '90...
MERRIKEN: This is the year 2000.
RAZ: Year 2000. OK.
MERRIKEN: So I was three months away from moving to Seattle. I was thrilled to death I got into the school. I went to this meeting with all these, you know, naturopaths that had been naturopaths for 20 years, and this meeting scared the living daylights out of me.
MERRIKEN: Because all of these people were passionate. But because the state of California didn't allow them to really practice their scope of medicine - because the laws limited them - it just looked like a giant struggle.
MERRIKEN: It looked frustrating to be able to have a degree in something and not be able to really do it. And then I went back to Colorado over Memorial Day weekend to visit one of my dearest and oldest friends. And I went hiking, and I was just kind of eating a trail mix and thinking of food and raw foods and thinking about moving to Seattle. And all of a sudden, I'm on this mountain, and this light bulb goes off for me. And I think, why hasn't somebody made something made of fruit, nuts and spices - like, something very just pure, simple, real foods but is portable and convenient but it tastes indulgent - like you shouldn't be eating it, like junk food? I mean, I don't know.
That day, at that moment, it was like this surge of energy I got. I could feel this excitement over an idea. It's not like I hadn't had ideas before. I mean, people are walking around every day with ideas. But for whatever reason, at that day and that time and all those little experiences that built up, I just felt it.
RAZ: So what'd you do? Did you, like, run home and start, like, writing things down or drawing pictures or did you just kind of mull it over for a while?
MERRIKEN: So I ran down the mountain. I got out a notebook, and I started writing down ideas. And then when we got back to Denver, I thought how can I take fruit, nuts and spices and turn them into something really exciting? And I would get ideas from pies and cookies and cakes, and I'd think, OK, how do I take cherry pie and make it just in my Cuisinart - basically a raw, unprocessed food - and make it taste like cherry pie or apple pie or banana bread or what have you?
RAZ: Did you immediately think, hey, I can turn this into a business? Or was it more like I just want to try to experiment and see if I can make this snack?
MERRIKEN: I did think, I think I can turn this into a business. I don't even know - I think it was, like, a day later. And the next thing you know, I'm thinking, I'm going to start this business, and I'm going to do this in the next three months. I mean, how naive is that - to think that you're going to start a business in three months? And I called my parents, and everybody thought I was completely out of my mind.
RAZ: Did they think it was, like, an early mid-life crisis?
MERRIKEN: I don't know what they thought. They just thought, we've sent her, you know, to - through private high school, USC. She's graduated. She's 32 years old. Oh, my God, what's going on here? But it was actually great that people questioned me and wondered why I was doing what I was doing and especially my family because it made me dig in more and recognize that I really did want to do it, that I didn't need to get approval from anybody, but that I needed - I had found something that was important to me, and I just could not be stopped. I arranged to stay with another friend of mine, moved in with her.
RAZ: In Denver?
MERRIKEN: Yes. And then I would take these concoctions that I would come up with using the Cuisinart that I had had for years, by the way. I'd never actually used it. I didn't even know how to use the Cuisinart. And for some reason, I got the Cuisinart out, and I would do what's called - well, they officially call it a focus group. I didn't even know the name then. And I would - I created my own little survey, and I would ask people, why do you - you know, what do you eat energy bars for, why do you like them, why don't you like them - you know, all these things. And people would fill them out, and then I would give them my concoctions and say please tell me what you think.
RAZ: And so is that how you developed your recipes?
MERRIKEN: Yes. The interesting thing is the recipes came fairly quickly. I - you know, because I would sample my friends, and they would give me feedback like, I really like the cherry, but I don't taste cherry in every bite. And I would go back to the drawing board and think, I think I need to add more cherries. You should taste cherry in every bite. You shouldn't be searching for it. Then it doesn't taste like cherry pie, right?
RAZ: By the way, how did you make - like, how did you think of cherry pie? Like, what - do you use dried cherries and - I don't know - what else?
MERRIKEN: Well, I - so I would go to this natural food store...
MERRIKEN: ...Because everything was less expensive there, and I would buy dried cherries, and dried bananas and dried apples, and then I would come up with the idea of, oh, cherry pie. OK, let me see if I can make cherry pie with these cherries, the dates and the almonds. And they sold these tart, unsweetened cherries I will never forget. They were the best-tasting thing because they actually are a real cherry without a bunch of sugar in them.
MERRIKEN: And then what is today Larabar cherry pie is from these cherries.
RAZ: So I'm just imagining this because I do a lot of cooking. And you're in your kitchen with your Cuisinart, and I'm thinking you put a bunch of dates and, like, nuts in there, and you're just going to get this, like, ball rolling around the Cuisinart - this sticky, like, (imitating thumping) - like, sticky ball of a mass, and then you would, like, take it out with your hands and, like, shape it?
MERRIKEN: I would roll it out with a rolling pin, and then I got a cutter, and I would...
RAZ: Like a pizza cutter?
MERRIKEN: ...Like a pizza cutter...
MERRIKEN: ...And I would cut it out.
RAZ: Just in your kitchen?
MERRIKEN: And I would make samples, I mean, batch after batch after batch.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: And did you have any of your own - I mean, did you have any cash? Did you have to sort of ask your parents to help you out in that year while you were not - you know, weren't getting a salary? How did you pay your bills?
MERRIKEN: Within about a week, I realized, oh, I had a little bit of money saved up. And then I thought, I'm going to start this business, but I have to work. I have to get a job, you know?
MERRIKEN: So Whole Foods opened their first store in Denver at exactly the same time. And I started seeing the building go up in the neighborhood I grew up in actually. And I thought, huh, I'm going to get a job with them. I'm going to work in their nutrition department doing what I love, but I'm going to figure out the business and how it works and use it as a learning opportunity - almost like a paid internship in a sense.
RAZ: I mean, that's, like, incredibly prescient. Like, that's really amazing planning. It reminds me - we interviewed Ben & Jerry's, and people think that they were just these hippies, but they actually, like, stood on a street corner with a counter to count how many people passed the street corner when they were looking for a location for their Ben & Jerry's. You know, like, that is a real planning moment. You were sort of looking ahead and saying, all right, well, if I'm going to do this business, let me at least learn natural foods and go, like - what? - be, like, a cashier at Whole Foods?
MERRIKEN: I got a job in the nutrition department doing what I loved, which was working around all the nutrition products. So I thought, OK, I'm going to enjoy myself, but I'm also going - I'll have a first-hand view of what it's like to have a product in their store. And what does that mean from the standpoint of the vendor? And it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
RAZ: So at what point did you think to yourself, OK, this is going to be really - this is really going to be a big deal? Like, this is - people are going to want to buy these.
MERRIKEN: I'm not sure I ever thought that. It was such a gradual progression. So I first, you know, got my recipes together, and I would give them out to friends. And then friends would say I would buy those. And that little tidbit of asking me to buy it would make me feel so excited and motivated to get to the next place, which was how in the world am I going to manufacture these things?
MERRIKEN: Where am I going to get dates and almonds and cherries? I didn't even know - I'm buying them at a natural food grocery store in little baggies.
MERRIKEN: What do I know about almonds and dates and all that stuff? What do I know about manufacturing equipment? And at the time, I started questioning, am I actually going to do this or should I just go to work for Whole Foods? Maybe I'll just do that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: And just to clarify again, how are you just, like, sort of funding this business - like, buying the ingredients and stuff? I mean, this was - were you just using your own money?
MERRIKEN: You know, I had a job at Whole Foods, and then I had a credit card.
RAZ: And were you nervous or anxious at all?
MERRIKEN: I don't know. I would have moments where I would be really gung-ho, and I would get all kinds of great information. And a month would go by, and I would find out about a piece of manufacturing equipment or just little things, and I would be so motivated. And somebody would want to buy bars, and I'd make them a batch of bars in these little Ziploc bags in a little Chinese takeout box. And I would - they would pay me, like, $22 or something for a box of bars. And I would think wow. And then another month would go buy where I couldn't get anywhere. I felt like my feet were stuck in the mud. And then I would just get really unmotivated, and nothing would happen. And this went on for the three-year period between my idea phase and when I actually launched.
RAZ: So I'm trying to figure out how you maintained your optimism and confidence about all this because, I mean, you're 32, you're divorced, and I imagine you'd probably have some emotional ups and downs at this point. And I don't know. Like, was part of you - I mean, did you ever get the feeling that people would look at you and kind of think, oh, yeah, that's Lara, she's got this kind of weird side project?
MERRIKEN: Oh, a lot of people thought that. I mean, I would see people I went to high school with, and they would come into Whole Foods and, you know, they had - they're already climbing the ladder at big jobs in finance and all kinds of things. And they'd say, oh, I didn't know you worked here. And people would see me. And even if I had those moments with people where I would notice the fact that I wasn't on that trajectory, I finally just said this is your path in life, and you have to go for it and embrace it and make it happen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: When we come back, how Lara embraced the uncertainty and slowly, slowly figured out how to turn her kitchen project into a business. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Hey, welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So it's 2001, Lara Merriken is working at Whole Foods in Denver, and she's trying to figure out how to start a company. But she still doesn't have a whole lot of money and she doesn't have any professional equipment or even a way to process and package her energy bars.
MERRIKEN: So eventually, I went to a packaging company in Denver, and they weren't even taking me seriously...
RAZ: What did you say to them? You said, hey, how do I make this on a bigger scale?
MERRIKEN: Well, I said I need packaging, and then they'd look at me and go, huh. I mean, they couldn't take me seriously. I didn't even have a business, and they'd give me a giant book that looked so tedious to read through. And they'd say, well, read some of this and come back and we'll talk to you about packaging. And then I would read enough that I would come back partially educated and then they started realizing I was serious about it.
RAZ: That you wanted - you were looking for somebody who had food-grade packaging that could package your bars.
RAZ: And meanwhile, back at home, you're still using a Cuisinart.
MERRIKEN: Yes. I was using the Cuisinart and I was trying to find a giant Cuisinart. I was trying to - I didn't even know what that was called - it's called a vertical cutter mixer, I learned. And then that led to some guy that they knew that had a piece of manufacturing equipment that, lo and behold, was the exact thing that I needed.
RAZ: The giant Cuisinart.
MERRIKEN: Yes. And so because I had the tenacity to ask and I wasn't afraid, at a time when a lot of people questioned what I was doing, but I knew that I needed to do it, it gave me the motivation to keep asking questions and to be curious and tenacious. And so I called the guy with the piece of equipment and I'd meet him, and then I talked to this guy and he say, well, I'm not really using it. If you want to use it, you can. And that's how it all kind of pieced together.
RAZ: Yeah. And did you - you had the name by that point, Larabars?
MERRIKEN: Well, no. It was a different name. So I was going to name it Manabar. And your mana is your vital energy or your chi.
RAZ: How is that spelled?
RAZ: What happened to that name?
MERRIKEN: Well, the trademarking attorney called me at the eleventh hour, and we were getting ready to launch. It was the year 2002 - summer. And she said, I think there's going to be a problem. And she said there's actually Manna Bread - M-A-N-N-A - and I think it could be confusingly similar, and I think you're going to need to change the name. And I just thought, you're joking, right? I don't want to deal with this right now. Naming is one of the hardest things.
So I got the phone call, finally came to terms with the fact that that was going to have to happen. And a friend said, you know, why don't you call them Larabar? You know, you make them, they're your bars, it sounds kind of like a good - it rings, Larabar, you know? And I thought, no way. I am not putting my name on this product. I don't want my name in there. No way, I'm not doing that. And then I just kind of sat with it for a couple of weeks and I finally thought, huh, Larabar. I guess that could work.
RAZ: And by the way, you had raised some money from...
MERRIKEN: No, I hadn't raise any money.
RAZ: You didn't raise any money?
MERRIKEN: OK, sorry. I wrote a business plan. My dad helped me write a business plan. I had a few friends and family interested and between the renaming of Larabar - Manabar to Larabar and manufacturing issues, I was going to launch in fall of 2002 and that got delayed until April of 2003. And during that time, all of my interested friends and family backed out.
RAZ: Because they got cold feet because it was...
MERRIKEN: Cold feet. Yeah. Yeah, it was just getting delayed.
MERRIKEN: And all these people are starting to slowly back out because things are not happening. I've left working at Whole Foods. It's like mid-2002, and we're supposed to be launching, but we don't launch. And everybody's backing out because nothing's happening.
RAZ: So what did you do?
MERRIKEN: Well, I had to raise the money. And my dad had decided he wanted to get involved in the company. He had a great business background in the retail business. He knew operations and how to run a company. And he called me one day and he said, hey, would you - would you want a business partner?
RAZ: And then how much money did you decide that you needed to raise?
MERRIKEN: There really wasn't an amount. It wasn't really a specific - I think we came up with the amount because I had to print packaging, and I had five flavors that I was launching with. And each...
RAZ: They were cashew cookie...
MERRIKEN: OK, cashew cookie, cherry pie, apple pie, banana bread, and chocolate coconut chew. And there was a minimum print run of all of those. And I actually printed at this company in Minnesota. And I remember it costing somewhere around, you know, $100,000 to $150,000. And the manufacturing wasn't working out. I had been to now four manufacturing places that did not work out. And I had a giant vertical cutter mixer in the back of my old Land Cruiser that I would haul around to each facility, whether it was two hours away, an hour away, two hours away, what have you...
RAZ: You would have them install in their facility, ideally?
RAZ: You bought this thing?
MERRIKEN: I borrowed it.
RAZ: The giant - the giant Cuisinart?
MERRIKEN: Giant Cuisinart, it's 400 pounds. It was on a pallet and they'd have to forklift it into the back of my Land Cruiser. So I was running around the state of Colorado trying to find somewhere to manufacture. And when you're new to business, nobody takes you seriously...
RAZ: Nobody wants to work with you - yeah.
MERRIKEN: They don't even know how to make your product, you know. They just want me to fit in to what they're doing. And so I'm running around trying to find a place to manufacture and all the additional investors have now backed out. And I remember it was just, like, a dark night in January and my dad was getting discouraged. So I said to him, you know what? I believe that this is going to work out. I really have faith, and I think the right people will come along at the right time. So I started talking to some other friends about it - friends in yoga class, friends I worked with at Whole Foods. And then all of a sudden, a whole new group of people came that were just thrilled - like, 6 people - and said, we'd love to invest it.
RAZ: To put money in it.
RAZ: And how much did you raise?
MERRIKEN: Well, it was a total of $150,000.
RAZ: One-hundred-fifty-thousand bucks - and that was going to get you through some production and printing.
MERRIKEN: More or less and then a little bit of extra just for operating costs. But we were operating out of a tiny duplex in Denver, so the overhead was extremely low.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: OK, so you have the manufacturing and the printing nailed down, but how did you then find the stores to buy and then sell Larabars?
MERRIKEN: Well, let me let me backtrack to where it - when I was working at Whole Foods before I left. So one morning I was there - because this is also part of what you're asking me. So I was on the early shift at 8 a.m., and one of the grocery guys - he said, Lara, the guy you need to meet - he's the regional buyer from Austin, and he's the guy - he's coming in, you know, this next week. He's the guy you should talk to about your product.
So here I am. I'm taking trash out one morning. It's about 8:15 in the morning, and he walks across my path on the back dock of the store, this buyer. And he says, oh, hey, how are you? What's new? You know, he just - he was being friendly. He'd seen me before. He didn't know who I was. And I - in that moment I thought, this is my moment. And I said, oh, hi. You know, this is what's new. I've been working on this product. I'm creating my own nutrition bar, this and that. And he literally kind of dead stopped and started doing this...
RAZ: Oh, please.
MERRIKEN: ...Motion of, I didn't really mean that.
RAZ: Don't pitch me. Don't pitch me.
MERRIKEN: Don't pitch me.
RAZ: Yeah, right.
MERRIKEN: I didn't mean that, and I'd like to run away from you right now. And he said, well, I'm only here for two hours. Do you have samples? And he's just trying to get rid of me. And I said, actually, I do have samples. Well, I'm leaving in two hours. I said, well, I can go home and get them. I mean, I had an answer to everything. He just tried to make me go away. And I wasn't going away. And he said, OK, bring me the samples and just kind of walked off. And so I said to my co-worker, I have to go home right now and take my break. And so I gave them to him. And then, like, an hour later, he's sitting there, and he goes, Lara, this is the most innovative product I've tried in years.
MERRIKEN: And I'm standing there. I couldn't even believe my ears. You know, I knew I made a great product, but he's a buyer. He's a regional buyer. And he said, when you are ready, here's my card. He said, give me a call. Let me know. He said, dot your I's. Cross your T's. I will let you bring it into the Colorado stores. And that was just such a motivational moment for me.
RAZ: I bet.
MERRIKEN: I mean, this is, you know, two years in, and I'm questioning what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. I'm tired. I don't know what I'm doing. And he says this, and I think, wow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: So - what? - like, a few months later, you were ready to put Larabars out into the world, right?
MERRIKEN: Yes. I finally have raised all the money we wanted to raise and found a manufacturing facility. It was the fourth one.
RAZ: And how many bars did you have them make for the first big push, the first launch?
MERRIKEN: They didn't make the bars. We made the bars.
RAZ: You did, OK. How many did you make?
MERRIKEN: Five-hundred bars by hand. So I had rolls of packaging and a vertical cutter mixer essentially.
RAZ: And it was you and a bunch of, like, friends and...
MERRIKEN: It was me, my father and then any friend that would help. And it took us about 15 hours to make 500 bars because I had to hand-cut each wrapper off of the rolls of film, make the bar, you know, roll it out with a pizza - with a rolling pin and a pizza cutter and then stuff it in a package and heat seal.
RAZ: And then - what? - you would take those bars to, like, Whole Foods and then, like, set up a table with samples and try to sell them to people who are shopping in the store.
MERRIKEN: Yes. So what I had learned working at Whole Foods in the three years that I was there, among other things, was when you sample products for free to people, it's this kind of non-risky trial. So in my mind, the marketing plan for me was to do that - is to stand in the store, to talk to people, to educate them because what I was doing, fruit and nuts - I mean, everybody was afraid of a piece of fruit at the time. The whole carb thing - the Atkins thing was very big, and everybody thought, like, eating a carrot was a very bad thing. So I'm thinking, what am I going to do with, you know, cherries and dates? And then nuts have high fat in them.
MERRIKEN: But it's good fat. And so there was a lot to explain. But I had to make it digestible and simple for people. So my whole strategy was to get in each store and as often as I could, lunch and dinner, demo my product.
RAZ: And you were manning the table, and you were, like, saying, hey, you want to try a Larabar?
MERRIKEN: I was manning the table. In fact, I have pictures of me doing all the demos. And within two weeks of being in Whole Foods because one of my friends still worked there - he said, Lara, you have to go look at the movement chart upstairs. And I said, what? And he said, Larabar is the top five - one through five top-selling selling products in the entire store right now. It outsells olive oil and water.
RAZ: You had one of the five best-selling selling products in that store within two weeks.
RAZ: That's insane.
MERRIKEN: I mean, I knew in my heart and from all the feedback I'd gotten that people were excited about what I was doing. But I also on the other hand knew that there was going to be challenges. And that was the - I remember the day I got into the stores. And I brought it after making those 500 bars by hand. And I remember standing there. And I was just - I was excited, exhilarated, anxious, scared to death. I mean, it was like putting a piece of art on display.
RAZ: Yeah. What do you think - I mean, like, what explains why it sold so well? Like, now you think about, you know, so many people are paleo. I am paleo. And, you know, people are doing Whole30 and all of these - and that's - and raw food is just kind of - it's a lot more mainstream now. But in 2003, you know, Atkins was still really big as - you know, and so some of these ingredients were sort of uncommon to a lot of people. They would think, oh, well, I don't know if all the nuts and the fat and this. What explains how it took off so fast?
MERRIKEN: It was simple.
MERRIKEN: Ten or less ingredients - you know what these ingredients are - almonds, dates, cashews, cinnamon, I mean, depends on the bar, but - cherries. And you know what these things are. And we've been eating these items. And, you know, they're grown on trees. We know what they are. It's not a question. And then they were made to taste - I blended them to taste like something you want to eat. So I didn't feel like you had to sacrifice. Oh, it's healthy, but doesn't taste good. I wanted to blend both, and I wanted to make it something that you were so happy and excited to eat.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: And there's, like, two, three, four, five ingredients in the average Larabar, right?
MERRIKEN: There are. Like, my all-time favorite - Cashew Cookie.
RAZ: Yes, me, too.
MERRIKEN: I love it. And it's two ingredients, cashews and dates. It's so simple. And I think that's what resonated with people - is people had never seen something like this before...
RAZ: Which is...
MERRIKEN: ...In that category.
RAZ: Which is crazy because it's such a simple idea in some way. I mean, it's complicated, but it's simple ingredients.
MERRIKEN: Even my dad asked me one day, how come somebody else hasn't thought about this? I said, I have no idea, but I have. And I wanted - this is why we're doing this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: So once you launch in Whole Foods and you realize that you're one of the top five sellers - and it's just that one Whole Foods in Denver, right...
MERRIKEN: Yes, yes.
RAZ: ...In that neighborhood in Denver, how quickly did Whole Foods generally, you know, the Whole Foods - I don't know - Whole Foods come to you and say, actually, we want these to go national?
MERRIKEN: That took a little time. I mean, it was over the next year that that started to happen. That wasn't as easy as it seemed. But it did come together. There was a journalist in Denver that works for The Denver Post. And he wrote an article about me Memorial Day of 2003, and it literally put my company on the map just from that one article. I will always be grateful for that. And from that, the industry paper caught it. And then all these stores from California started calling. And so I started launching in California. And it just started to build.
RAZ: How were you making the bars fast enough?
MERRIKEN: We were doing anything and everything we could to make the bars fast enough.
RAZ: Were you still personally making them at that point?
MERRIKEN: I was. My father started taking over manufacturing operations. And then we started just getting help.
RAZ: You had to hire people.
MERRIKEN: We - oh, yeah, we had to hire people. And we were really riding a great wave.
RAZ: You were already getting a lot of attention at that point.
MERRIKEN: I mean, we were two years in. We were basically a national brand now in...
RAZ: What was your revenue in year two?
MERRIKEN: Year two - I want to say, like, five to seven.
RAZ: Million dollars.
MERRIKEN: Yeah, I'd say about five.
RAZ: In two - year two.
MERRIKEN: Yeah, we were jumping.
RAZ: Crazy growth.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Was your whole life from, like, 2000 to launch and then in the middle of this, like, 2005, 2006 - was - were you working like crazy? Or by the time you're hitting 5 to 7 million in sales, were you, like, kind of kicking back and you and your dad sort of clinking champagne glasses and saying, all right, we can chill out a little bit?
MERRIKEN: No, never. The bigger we got, the more I felt like we can never rest on our laurels. And I just felt like I had to work as hard as I could because I was leading our team. And if I wasn't showing that I'm working hard and showing up every day, then how could I ask people that did that for me?
MERRIKEN: You know, we're building a company. We can't say, sorry, we're not available until Friday. You answer the phone any time somebody calls.
MERRIKEN: I mean, you know, some of these big retailers would call in the most random moments...
RAZ: And say, hey, we need more.
MERRIKEN: We're interested. We'd like to bring you in. Can you come out and meet us at our national headquarters?
RAZ: And of course you'd have to go.
MERRIKEN: That's right.
RAZ: So as you continue to grow - you're doing 5, 7, 10 - I don't know - 20 million, 30 million. How many employees did you eventually hire?
MERRIKEN: We had about 26 in sales and marketing. And then manufacturing had about 75.
RAZ: Yeah. You - in 2008 I guess, you were approached - or starting and maybe even earlier than that - you start to get approached by big companies that were interested in talking to you. You did eventually sell to General Mills, which I want to get to in a sec. But they were not the only company that approached you.
MERRIKEN: They were not. The first phone call I got from a really large company was in early 2005 - so, like, a year and a half in.
RAZ: Wow. And they said, hey, we want to talk to you.
MERRIKEN: My - one of my investor friends who worked for us was answering the phones, and she said, so-and-so from this company's on the phone. And I went, what? And it was...
RAZ: A big, huge company.
MERRIKEN: Yeah. It's a competitor of General Mills. And I was in shock. I didn't - it never occurred to me that I would sell my company or be approached by these big companies. It just - it wasn't in - where my mind was.
MERRIKEN: And then it became a distraction in the middle of growing the company and running it. And so, you know, my business partners and I had to decide, were we really going to be serious, entertaining an offer? Or were we just - you know, because it's just too much distraction.
MERRIKEN: So we finally decided in 2007 that we would entertain an offer if it was the right company...
MERRIKEN: ...If we felt like it was the right company because we didn't have to sell. We were a very, you know, financially stable company.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC
MERRIKEN: But for me, I was starting to get really tired and just - I was getting worn down.
RAZ: I bet. And, I mean, you had spent most of or all of - virtually, all of your 30s really just grinding this out, right? And so presumably, you wanted to kind of just focus on yourself a little bit? Just...
MERRIKEN: Yeah, I just wanted a little relief, I think.
MERRIKEN: And then we started to talk to some of these companies. And then I met with General Mills. And I just knew the day I walked in that building and how they approached me and the meeting we had. I knew - I felt that there was a connection and an authenticity - that if there were a company that were big that they would be a great fit. I felt like they understood my brand and respected it. And all the brands they'd had had been around forever. So they're not just turning brands out and putting them on the shelf and getting rid of them. I just felt the synergy.
RAZ: I mean, almost nobody we've had on the show - with some exceptions. But almost nobody we've had on the show even thinks about money when they're starting their company. They're just committed to a product or a - there's a passion there. There's a problem they want to solve. And then one day, they find themselves with this money. And they're financially secure. You start this thing at 30 - 33, really.
MERRIKEN: At 34, yeah.
RAZ: Thirty-four. Thirty-nine, you sell it. And all of a sudden, you and your dad - you have this money. And this thing that you built, did - like, how did you wrap your head around it?
MERRIKEN: It took a while. You know, during the sale process, I had to be, you know, we - they had to do all of the kind of the research of our company without us telling our employees. And that was very nerve-wracking. So I had to have this very compartmentalized life for three months. And I felt like I was going to have a nervous breakdown. But - because you don't know if it's going to come together until literally the day before. So that was a very stressful period for me - exciting, but also really unknown.
And then we put a deal together. And that was the day before I turned 40. And then all of a sudden, I had to go from running the ship to realizing that a whole another team of people wanted - needed to come in and do that. And I needed to let them do that. As a result - you know, I had a little boy. I'm involved in his life. I, you know - I could just spend time pursuing other things important to me...
MERRIKEN: ...And still keep my hand in the business and do the things that I love for it but without all the stress.
RAZ: Yeah. I remember when Kate and Andy Spade were on our show, I asked Kate Spade, you know, who doesn't - has no ownership over Kate Spade anymore. She doesn't own the brand. I said, is it weird to just go to some city in the world and see a Kate Spade shop or walk around New York, where she lives, and see her handbags and her brand and her name, her name above the door all over the city? And she said, you know - she told us a story about how it's really cool to see that. And you must experience that. I mean, you go in any 7-Eleven or any Whole Foods or Safeway or Trader Joe's. There are Larabars right by the cash register everywhere - your name on this thing, on this brand, on this product.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MERRIKEN: I actually have. I was in Target one day with my son. It was a couple of years ago. And, you know, he's - he was six at the time. And we were, you know, wandering around, buying whatnot. And then he saw the Larabars. And he said, did you make all these bars for the store?
MERRIKEN: And I said, well, yes. Indirectly, yes. And, you know, it was the first time the light bulb went off for him about what I had done and what - you know, he'd seen them at our house. But to see them in the store - and it was really exciting.
MERRIKEN: It was a really positive moment.
RAZ: Has he ever had a Snickers?
MERRIKEN: Yes, he has had a Snickers...
MERRIKEN: ...And he does love them (laughter). Yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Lara, how much of what happened to you is because of luck and how much because of your skill?
MERRIKEN: I mean, I feel lucky that I have opportunity in my life and that I've surrounded myself with people that care about me and that - you know, along the way, when people thought I was completely out of my mind for starting an energy bar company, I remember thinking to myself, you know, you need to surround yourself with people that believe in you. It's really important.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MERRIKEN: And actually, I remember thinking to myself I have more to lose if I don't find out than I do if I try this, and it doesn't work. And I'm so glad that for whatever reason, I had that in my mind because it compelled me to move forward and make Larabar happen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: Lara Merriken, founder of Larabar. By the way, if you've ever struggled with how to pronounce Larabar - maybe you thought it was Laira (ph) bar - you can blame that umlaut above the A in Lara, you know, like the one used in Haagen-Dazs or Motley Crue which serves no real purpose or function. Lara just thought it looked pretty cool.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: And please do stick around because in just a moment, we're going to hear from you about the things you're building.
Hey, thanks so much for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That. And this story begins about 25 years ago in Guinea in West Africa, where Rahim Diallo was growing up. And one of the things he loved as a kid was this sweet-gingery pineapple juice called Ginjan. It's actually a really popular drink in that part of the world.
RAHIM DIALLO: You know, you go buy a snack from the side of the road, you often have, you know, women that have a little cooler of Ginjan that they sell along with it. There - essentially to us, this is like lemonade or iced tea here or maybe milk to a lot of the kids.
RAZ: Rahim's early childhood in Guinea was pretty great. But around the time he turned 15, the political situation in the country became unstable and unsafe. So Rahim's parents sent him and his brother to the U.S. But Rahim overstayed his visa and was eventually caught by immigration officials. And he ended up spending almost a year in detention.
DIALLO: Honestly, looking back at it, it's now that I appreciate how difficult of a time it was. I guess I was a little young and too naive to understand how much trouble I was in.
RAZ: Rahim was eventually able to get a green card and then made enough money to go to community college and then to Michigan State University. But the whole time, he was missing home - his mom, his friends and even that pineapple drink he loved as a kid.
DIALLO: Yeah, in Michigan, when I'm playing sports, when I'm running around in a really hot summer, I usually don't pine for a Coke. I think about Ginjan.
RAZ: Now, you can find homemade pineapple-ginger juice at some African restaurants. But you can't just walk into a chain store and buy it off the shelf. So Rahim and his brother thought, hey, maybe we should start making it and selling it. And when they started doing research, the timing seemed perfect.
DIALLO: We noticed that the traditional - the Cokes, the Pepsis, all these other carbonated, artificially-flavored brands all have been losing market share to a point where they have all started to buy up smaller companies that are developing fresh, organic products.
RAZ: OK, so a great opportunity for something like Ginjan. But as much as they loved the stuff, they did not know how to make it. So they called up their mom in Guinea and asked for her recipe.
DIALLO: Fresh ginger, cold pressed pineapples, fresh lemon juice, vanilla, anise...
RAZ: Anyway, this is all happening around 2014. And at this point, the two brothers are living in New York City. They start mixing up batches of Ginjan in Mohammed's apartment, and Rahim starts to give out samples to customers at the bar where he works.
DIALLO: They'll try it. Some folks would find the ginger to be too spicy. Some folks would find it to have a little too much lemon or too little lemon, or the pineapple is not pronounced enough, or it is. Or, you know...
RAZ: Eight months later, after trial and error, Rahim and Mohammed get the recipe exactly where they want it. And they decide to launch Ginjan at an African Festival in Harlem.
DIALLO: It was one of those moments we realized that we were really onto something. Everyone that came by that was from West Africa that knew the product could not just buy one bottle. You know, they'd buy two or three, take a picture and send it to a friend.
RAZ: They sold out all of their bottles. And then a really big break - they won $25,000 in a competition for budding entrepreneurs. So they moved into an industrial kitchen. And eventually, they pitched Ginjan to Whole Foods. And, well...
DIALLO: We were definitely relentless in terms of pursuing them because we knew Whole Foods wanted us to get a distributor. And their distributor was interested in us because they know we're talking to Whole Foods. So we kind of played them against one another, and it worked out well.
RAZ: Since launching the company in 2015, Ginjan has made it into five Whole Foods and about 100 independent stores. They've made about $300,000 - still not profitable, but they're having a great time.
DIALLO: Oh, my God. I'm having a blast.
RAZ: To find out more about Rahim and his company Ginjan Brothers, check out our Facebook page. And, of course, if you want to tell us your story, go to build.npr.org. We love hearing about the things you're building. And thanks so much for listening to our show this week.
If you want to find out more or hear previous episodes you can go to howibuiltthis.npr.org. Please also subscribe to our show at Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcasts. You can also write us. That's firstname.lastname@example.org. And our Twitter address is @HowIBuiltThis. Our show is produced this week by Ramtin Arablouei, who also composed the music. Thanks also to Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Thomas Lu and Jeff Rogers. Our intern is Nour Coudsi. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.