Maybe not an entire village, but it took five friends to start a company.
That would be Five Friends Foods, co-founded by Ross Pomeroy, Tom Johnson, Austin Hinkle, Mike Steffan and Will Handke. They are raising the bar for nutritious snacks with their refrigerated Fresh Bars. These high school friends from Mankato reconnected after college, and now their Fresh Bars can be found in more than 150 stores nationwide.
Fresh Bar is the brainchild of Pomeroy, who worked as a fitness trainer in Madison, Wis., while finishing college. He began making snack bars for his clients that were better tasting than the crumbly dry packaged products on the market. His were a hit — soft, chewy and loaded with fruit, nuts and oats.
Soon after graduating, he and his twin brother, Will Handke (Will took his mother’s maiden name; Ross took his father’s), launched GudBar and invited two friends to join them in the venture. They leased space in Kindred Kitchen, a commercial incubator kitchen in Minneapolis. However, they were soon threatened by Hershey for copyright infringement (GudBar vs Mr. Goodbar candy).
“It actually helped us in the long run,” said Handke.
For the first three years, the team worked nights on Fresh Bars after putting in full days at their paying jobs. Handke described this as “One eight-hour shift right after another.”
Long hours paid off as they began to realize strong sales, first in food co-ops.
“The beautiful thing about co-ops is that I can have the buyer on the phone when I call, as opposed to larger retailers,” said Handke.
Lunds & Byerlys, Kowalski’s and Whole Foods soon came on board. Recently Five Friends drew attention from AccelFoods, a venture capitalist firm investing in start-up food companies. With AccelFoods’ financial and technical support, Five Friends spiffed up Fresh Bar’s packaging and struck a deal with East Coast retailer Wegmans.
Today, four of the friends are working full time for Five Friends. Handke, the CEO, deals with the finances and economic infrastructure; Hinkle oversees quality and product development; Johnson is the marketing guru; and Pomeroy heads customer service. Steffan, who recently moved to North Carolina, is less involved.
The biggest challenge Five Friends now faces is finding a co-packer so it can increase production and meet the demand for its product.
“Doing things ourselves gives us more control of our costs and quality, so we’re being careful deciding who to partner with,” Handke said. “We’re committed to staying in Minnesota and we have several solid leads.”
Fresh Bars come in four flavors — Chocolate Peanut Butter Banana, Cherry Pear Walnut, Apple Almond Cinnamon and Pumpkin Carrot Pecan — and are soft and chewy. Warmed in a microwave, they taste like a freshly baked cookie.
Handke, who is just a few years out of college, credits Five Friends’ success to the school of hard knocks.
“Every time we’ve made a mistake, we’ve learned something,” he said. “We took the slow path because we didn’t have an option. There’s always the urge to go fast. But because we couldn’t hit our goals right away, we now have a better product.”
The five are still friends after all these long days and longer nights in the kitchen and on the road.
“We have fun; well, not always, but we’ve grown closer,” Handke said. “And that’s what counts.”
Fresh Bars are available at many supermarkets and food co-ops, in the refrigerator section. For a complete list, see eatfreshbar.com. About $1.40 per bar, or in packages of three for about $4.99.