In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
There’s Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. There’s Annie’s salad dressing. In Barre, there was Bud’s sausage, and for a while, in Williston, there was Alec’s Spicy Pretzels until the name was changed to “Distler’s.”
So, why didn’t Mike Rosenberg go the eponymous route and call his product “Mike’s Energy Bar”?
Easy. Because “Garuka” is way catchier, and because everyone wants to help endangered mountain gorillas, and somewhere in Rwanda or the Democratic Republic of Congo there is — or was — a male gorilla named “Garuka.” Buy a Garuka Bar, and in one tiny way, you are promoting survival of the mountain gorillas of central Africa. The package on the bar explains that 1 percent of Rosenberg’s profits go to the International Gorilla Conservation Programme. “It’s actually more than 1 percent,” he says.
Rosenberg’s tale is one of success so far, an example of interest and ingenuity meeting opportunity. In October, his Garuka Bar business was recognized as one of the year’s three “blue-ribbon success stories” by the state’s Farm To Plate Program. His bars, made in a commercial kitchen in Winooski – to the tune of 4,000 to 6,000 a month – were cited because the food service company, Sodexo, had just agreed to sell them to University of Vermont students.
Small honor, big step.
Rosenberg, 30, son of educators, grew up in Montgomery Center in the shadow of Jay Peak. He had an early culinary interest, or certainly an appetite. “My mom is a pretty good cook, not by recipe, but by taste, and that’s kind of where I got this,” he explains.
“Our house was known as the place to go, to eat, and I would arrive home with my friends from Jay Peak (skiing) and sit down to eggs, potatoes, bacon, fruit … anything.”
He went to St. Michael’s College to major in psychology and receive a master’s degree in business administration. But his plunge into the business of making energy bars was more ”serendipity” than a logical extension of what he learned in school.
On a summer morning in 2010 while wakeboarding on Malletts Bay, he made the mistake of taking a run while fatigued. During a flip, he lost balance, slammed into the water, and heard, to his dismay, “a pop, pop, pop in my knee.” Laid up for two months in a North End Burlington apartment, with what probably was a cartilage and ligament injury (he didn’t initially see a doctor), he hobbled about looking for things to do. He settled on cooking.
“I read cookbooks and found recipes online. I was not discriminatory: I found recipes everywhere from high-culture magazines to Family Circle and Women’s Day,” he says.
And he cooked everything from stuffed flank steak to chocolate-raspberry muffins, but with strong encouragement from athletic friends, he began experimenting with energy bars.
After weeks of trial and error, he settled, enthusiastically, on a combination of peanuts, peanut butter, whole grain flakes, brown rice puffs, cranberries and raw honey.
Garuka Bars offer a sweet high. “I buy 100 to 200 pounds of honey a month from Champlain Valley Apiary out of Middlebury, which I think is the best honey provider in Vermont,” he says.
By his own admission, he drove friends nuts with his musings about a possible name. He settled on “Gorilla Bars,” and even had a logo, but then his lawyer warned of possible challenges securing a trademark under that name. A friend suggested he be more original and name his bar after a specific gorilla known to exist in the highlands.
Well monitored, the 800 mountain gorillas known to exist in the wilds all have names, Rosenberg explains. Go figure.
Mike might have picked an easier product. Energy bars, often less sweet and more nutritious than candy bars, have been around for some 50 years, ever since they were first developed for the U.S. space program.
It’s a crowded field he’s entered, with dozens of national brands, from Clif to Balance, and several other Vermont brands, from Monkeychew (Cavendish) to Owl (Brattleboro) to Battenkill Brittle (Arlington).
It’s a creative industry: An energy-bar maker in California invites customers, through an ingredient checklist on its website, to design their own bars that are then manufactured and mailed out by the caseload.
So, Rosenberg is right when he says he entered a “mature” market, but being a skier and wakeboarder and all-around outdoor adventurer, it was as though he had no choice.
Rosenberg’s production operation is located in a small commercial kitchen on Main Street in Winooski that’s owned by Randi Kay, who produces her own salsa and Bloody Mary mix, and for others mustards, brownies, salad dressing and pickled goods. On Mondays, Kay and a work companion, under fluorescent lights and surrounded by stainless steel tables and tubs, stirs in the ingredients with a big metal paddle to make the Garuka Bars; on Tuesdays they package them and send them out.
“Most of our retail accounts are in northern Vermont, but we sell in the Littleton Co-op, in New Hampshire and at Healthy Living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and a few other random places,” says Rosenberg.
“We ship throughout the country, with probably a third of our business being mail order,” adds Rosenberg, who on a day last week was talking by phone from Utah, where he happened to be at his “day job,” so to speak, at a trade show for a ski company for which he works. He minds the shop back home though email and text messaging.
In summer, Rosenberg employs the personal touch: He sells his bars at farmers’ markets and tasting events.
That’s how Kyle Wheel of Burlington, a cyclist and financial adviser, got his first sample and became a big booster.
“We learned about Garuka Bars at a beer and wine festival at the [Champlain] lakefront, and we met Mike, liked him, and we wanted to support his business,” Wheel says.
Come to find out the bars are popular with squirrels too. Wheel reports his wife arrived home one day to find a squirrel having lunch atop the box of Garukas that had just been delivered. It was perhaps the first time a product named after a gorilla, meant for humans, was taste-tested by a squirrel, and Wheel’s wife documented it with a photo later sent to Rosenberg.
Wheel guesses that if the Garuka Bar business continues growing it will someday need investors or other sources of capital. He says making food products can be especially challenging because of the high level of government regulation.
But so far so good, says Rosenberg.
Against all advice, he borrowed money on a credit card to get started, and just now has become debt free.
So maybe some day he will be the Ben & Jerry’s of energy bars?
“Ha,” he laughs. “I doubt I would be that big! But if I could be Vermont’s energy bar or New England’s, that would be awesome.”
Except for customers at farmers’ markets, he confesses, “I have still yet to see a stranger buy or eat one of my bars, and when that happens, I will probably just walk up and hug him or her.”
Dirk Van Susteren is a freelance writer and editor from Calais.
Correction: The Farm to Plate Program was misidentified in this story. That error was corrected at 9:20 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014.