Diving into the crowded snack-bar market wasn't on Max Broich's mind when he started making them a few years ago in the kitchen of Max's Cafe, his downtown Minneapolis restaurant.
"I was looking for something that was healthier that would look good and taste good that I could put in my bakery case that wasn't a muffin," he said. "I was eating too many muffins myself."
Armed with a food processor, rolling pin, cookie sheet and seven ingredients he had on hand, he went to work creating Max's Bars.
"They sold really well," Broich said. He eventually took things a step further and began wrapping the bars in plastic, topping them with custom-made stickers and displaying them by the register, where temptations tend to find their way into customers' hands. He was encouraged, and so were some of his regular customers.
"I had some businesspeople who were telling me, 'You might have something here,' " Broich said. "And I had a lot of encouragement from some regular customers telling me I should see what I can try to do with them."
One thing led to another, and Broich rented commercial kitchen space to ramp up production, worked with a neighboring business to design packaging and started to sell Max's Bars to small local businesses. What he didn't know at the time was that the snack bars would become an integral part of his business plan after the pandemic-induced exodus of downtown workers slowed his once-vibrant business to a crawl.
"Because of the pandemic, it pushed me to get them going," Broich said. "Partly because I had time to do it, and partly because I just don't know what's going to happen to my restaurant."
At the start of the pandemic, Broich reopened the first day he could, but for breakfast only. Although he normally has five employees, he ran things by himself until February, when he brought one employee back so he could dedicate more time to the snack bars.
That part of his business was growing, and Broich needed to find a way to make it scalable — he couldn't continue to make them all by hand.
"The natural progression was to find a co-packer to make them for me," he said. "So I kept the same recipe and I worked with people to rebrand them, and now I'm set up for success, where I can sell to anyone. No customer would be too big now."
The timing is fortuitous.
Last month, the Lakewinds co-op started carrying Max's Bars, complete with its new packaging, and he's waiting for details on a deal to be in select Minnesota Whole Foods stores. That's in addition to several local shops, from Midwest Mountaineering and a canoe outfitter to bike shops and Settergren's Hardware in Minneapolis and Minny Row market in Hopkins. (They're also available online at maxsbars.com.)
"I feel like celebrating when I get into new stores, and that's a great one," he said of his entry into Whole Foods. "But it kind of makes me anxious. People have to buy them, too."
An all-purpose bar
Broich designed Max's Bars to go with coffee, but he maintains that they really are an anytime snack. They are filling and portable, making them popular for camping and hiking, and Broich likes to put them in smoothies (see recipe). He said the bars' sweet-salty combination also makes them an unlikely pairing with beer, a theory you can test at 612 Brew in Minneapolis, which also carries the bars.
"A lot of other bars are designed backward, designed to meet a specific nutritional benefit first, and then the flavor maybe comes somewhere down the line," he said. "Mine were purely designed to taste good and use simple ingredients. Everything that's in them you probably have in your kitchen."
The ingredient list is short: whole grain oats, dates, honey, almond butter, sunflower seeds, almonds, raisins and sea salt. Broich is working on developing more flavors, including one with chocolate. He said he realizes the higher calorie count (310 calories in a 2.6-ounce bar) might not be for everyone, but they do fill a niche.
"To me, they have the potential to be a mainstream bar. Everyone likes the bars, they taste good," he said. "I think people can eat them for energy, or might eat them as a meal replacement."
Broich is still a steady presence at his skyway cafe, which is currently open from 7 to 10 a.m. Mondays through Thursdays, with limited offerings. He said it has been hard to get a pulse on the downtown scene.
"One or two days a week it seems like things are picking up," he said. "But the next day it's empty again. It's so hard to figure out what's going to happen."
But Broich is moving forward. Max's Cafe will open for lunch service on June 21 — the cafe's 10th anniversary.
"I think things will come back eventually," he said. "Maybe it won't ever be as busy downtown, but when people are working downtown, even if they're working two or three days a week, I hope they're going to do downtown when they are there and go out to eat, and do all the things they can't do at home."
About Max's Cafe:
Address: 250 2nd Av. S., Mpls., maxscafempls.com.
Max's Bars: Available in the cafe, several local shops and online at maxsbars.com.
Cost: Online cost is 12 for $30 or four for $12. Prices may vary in stores.
Max's Carrot Cake Smoothie
Note: If you thinly slice the banana before freezing, it will freeze in less than an hour. From Max Broich of Max's Cafe.
• 1 Max's Bar, cut into pieces
• 1 c. vanilla nondairy milk
• 2 carrots, roughly chopped
• 1 banana, frozen (see Note)
• 1 tbsp. ground flaxseed
• 1/4 tsp. pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon
Combine the bar, nondairy milk, carrots, frozen banana, flaxseed and pumpkin pie spice in a blender and blend until smooth.