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Maker of energy bars set to take on Bay Area market

Jessica Groach-Santina

Like many successful businesses, Fresh Energy Bakery started in a garage. It was the brainchild of owners Jim and Cynthia Marson, a husband and wife team who moved here from the Bay Area 15 years ago.

Now they’re ready to take their product back into their old stomping grounds.

Jim Marson’s family had owned a private-label food manufacturing business for many years in Carson City. When the family dissolved the business in 2002, Jim and Cynthia went looking for their next project.

With his extensive background in baking, nutrition, manufacturing and sales, the Marsons’ plan came together pretty quickly. “We just decided to start making some energy bars. So in 2003, we bought a bunch of stainless steel tables and equipment, got a permit from the city, got the health department to come certify us, and we started making product out of our garage.”

But this was no amateur operation. The Marsons knew enough about the food manufacturing business to begin conducting research. They developed 80 different formulas, held focus groups, tested the products on families who ate competing products, hired a marketing firm to design packaging, and designed a store concept.

Fresh Energy Bakery opened its doors in January 2004. In their first year, Fresh Energy had hit $750,000 in sales. And by the second year, they had 120 route customers selling Fresh Energy products, including Scolari’s, 7-11 and Keva Juice.

That first year, the Marsons learned a great deal about their market namely, that athletes and health-buffs weren’t the only people who wanted energy bars. In fact, Marson says the largest percentage of Fresh Energy’s customers aren’t really energy bar consumers at all.

“In 2005 we took a survey. I think it was seven out of 10 people coming into the store who had never tried a Power Bar before. We realized we’d tapped into a huge market that sat underneath the hard core energy bar market, and that was huge. We’ve got the elderly, the obese, diabetics, people with gluten or soy allergies, and soccer moms who want fresh snacks for their kids. They’re our main consumers. Because here, you can talk to somebody about what’s in the bar, how it tastes, and you can see it’s made fresh.”

The secret is raw nutrients, Marson says. Products are made in small batches, so as not to over-process or add preservatives. And because the bars aren’t cooked, he says the nutrients can be absorbed more quickly. There are seven product lines, in 60 different flavors, with a variety of purposes: meal replacement, supplementing fiber, providing an energy boost, replacing dessert, or providing kids with vitamins and minerals. Parent company Creation Labs, run by majority shareholder Cynthia Marson, employs researchers and quality control staff to monitor and develop products, and verify nutritional values.

Marson says that 40 percent of Fresh Energy’s sales go out the back door, as bulk deliveries to various retailers. With more routes being added all the time, new locations in the Bay Area will be added soon. “This one location isn’t enough to meet the demand,” says Jim Marson. “Raley’s wants us in all 150 stores, three local Costcos want us, and we’re already in a hundred 7-11’s. I can’t do all that out of this one 1,400-square-foot store.”

The first Bay Area store is slated for downtown Walnut Creek, at a location to be determined. They hope to open in 2006, and to follow that with stores in Palo Alto and Marin County. This allows them to take on the Raley’s and Costcos in the Northern Nevada market, as well as adding all 280 7-11’s and eight Costcos in the Bay Area. Marson says they eventually plan to have 150 stores on the west coast, from Seattle to San Diego.

The entire Marson family is in on it. Eldest daughter Sarah is currently in San Diego, pre-selling Fresh Energy to the market. Son James handles all Reno route deliveries. And youngest daughters Angela and Pammie work weekends in the South Reno store.

“It’s really run like a small business, not like a huge corporation,” says Marson. “And as it grows, it’s benefiting the local community.”