By Ellen Garrison
The Indianapolis Star.
Rebecca Walter and Tracy Gates thought it was weird they could buy an energy bar at the supermarket and it would last for a full year. It meant there was definitely nothing fresh in them.
So, two years ago, they decided to do something about it and UGo Bars LLC was born in Bloomington.
UGo Bars are handcrafted, non-GMO, vegan and only last a few weeks after production, because their ingredients are fresh.
Rather than chemicals you’ve never heard of with names you can’t pronounce, UGo bars are made with ingredients like dried cherries, organic brown rice syrup and dates.
“You wouldn’t buy a bag of roasted coffee that was a year old. We just have the same philosophy for food,” Walter said. “It’s a saturated market in terms of energy bars, but there was this huge hole for fresh, healthy food.”
Because Walter and Gates both worked day jobs until the beginning of this year and they’re entirely self-financed, their initial growth was slow. They started off selling their product at Bloomingfoods Co-op in Bloomington. Other businesses begin by pushing volume, looking to make a niche in the market as quickly as possible, the women said. Often, food businesses end up getting someone else to manufacture their product.
But Walter and Gates make their product by hand, because a manufacturer would use machines and ruin the integrity of their product.
“No one really approaches business the way we have, with baby steps,” Gates said. ” The more we talk to small businesses, they say no one is doing it this way, because no one has the patience.”
“It’s not glamorous, it’s slow growth,” Walter added. They’ve kept costs down by sharing kitchen space with five other groups trying to launch food products.
Their sales growth over the first year and a half of business was steady, Gates said. Things have picked up since then: UGo Bars has seen a 300 percent sales growth since this July and that continues to grow monthly. They’ve hired an employee to help keep up with demand.
Their second bulk customer was Indiana University, where Walter worked as a distance running coach. Then they were approached by Kroger, who was interested in carrying their brand, but told them they needed a distribution partner to streamline the process.
That’s how they found Tiny Footprint Distribution, a Midwestern distribution company with a focus on local and regional artisan food.
Tiny Footprint is the middleman between more than a hundred Midwestern small-food businesses and end retailers like Kroger and Marsh.
Working with Tiny Footprint freed up time for Walter and Gates to focus on their product and other forms of outreach — the two women have been able to get their product on athletic stores’ shelves across the country. You can buy a UGo Bar at the San Francisco Running Company in California or Confluence Running in New York, as well as many locations in between.
“Our goal is to be the solution for the vendor who needs to focus on the product and the end retailer who doesn’t have the time to work with select vendors,” Vice President John Freeland said.
In fact, Matt Ewer, the founder and CEO, started Tiny Footprint because he had his own food line and was trying to distribute it himself. It took time and money to cart his product around to stores and he kept running into other vendors with the same problem, Freeland said.
It would be much easier for both the vendors and the retailers to put all their products on the same truck and just make one round of deliveries.
“It was an immediate success because we would go to end retailers and say ‘We now have five new lines that you can get through me,’ ” Freeland said. “It’s the perfect blend of what small to mid-sized businesses need.”
When Tiny Footprint encounters a new vendor, whether the vendor reaches out to them or vice versa, they sit down with the vendor and talk about their product and their production process. They make recommendations for changes and when they think the product has reached the right blend of viability in the market and price point, they begin offering it to end retailers.
One of UGo’s special touches to improve their viability are the fun names Gates and Walter have created for the food bars: Wanderlust is their peanut/cacao blend and Anutter is the sweet and salty nut blend.
UGo is a perfect example of the type of brand Tiny Footprint would carry — local and unique, Freeland said. He and his wife eat them all the time.
“Lots of people are coming out with bars,” he said. “But UGo has definitely figured out how to separate themselves from the pack.”