How Three Millennials Set Out to Challenge the Stale Protein Bar Market
Instead of bars, Unwrapp'd sells dough that can be eaten raw or made into any number of snacks.
It’s a tale as old as time: two Midwest boys, brought together over a shared love of the outdoors, playful sports rivalries, health-nuttiness and the Colorado housing shortage. Tom Miner and Reed McIntyre shared all of this — and then they shared a plan to launch Unwrapp'd, a new company that produces nutritional dough that customers can turn into protein bars and other healthy snacks. We caught up with the Unwrapp’d team to discuss how they came up with the concept of nutrition dough and how they turned a passion project into a business as blossoming as their friendship.
Lauren Monitz: First of all, what is Unwrapp’d?
Tom Miner: Unwrapp’d is nutrition bar dough that you buy in a tub. You can take it and bake it, eat it raw, or freeze it.
How did this idea come to fruition?
Miner: I’ve tried virtually every protein bar on the market. After perusing the labels, I realized I couldn’t eat a single one of them on the Whole 30 diet, which got me thinking. All these bars, which were supposedly healthy, were full of ingredients I couldn’t pronounce, added sugar, preservatives, and artificial ingredients. Convenient? Maybe. Good for you, no. I knew I needed to do something about it, but I wasn’t sure what.
The aha moment came from the book How to Win Friends and Influence People. There’s a section where two parents can’t get their three-year old to eat cereal. Begging and pleading didn’t work, but when they asked her to “cook” it herself, all of a sudden she was excited about being involved in the process. As soon as she started pouring her own milk, she was eating two bowls a day. I knew I wanted to empower people to understand what they were eating, but I had no idea how to go about it. At the time, I was living in D.C. with a roommate who worked in startups. It was scary to throw ideas around, but he was really supportive and the one who encouraged me to pursue this. After I moved to Colorado, I started obsessively researching how food companies were formed. It was overwhelming to think about by myself, so I pushed it aside for a bit.
Reed was my neighbor who lived across the street. He was already coming over all the time to hang out and watch football. When his house was demolished in the fall of 2015, it only made sense that he became an official roommate. We had similar interests, from entrepreneurial mindsets to clean eating. He came from a mental-health background and also wanted to help people. We both came to the conclusion that this would be a good vehicle to help individuals take control of their health.
Reed McIntyre: I didn't know it at the time, but he was grooming me. The first time Tom brought up any sort of bar, we were in a Jeep picking up a foosball table. Not too long after that, we were bouncing (balls) and ideas back and forth and talking about how it would take shape. We started with the why – not the what or the how. We just bought some ingredients and started messing around. The first batch was terrible. It had no flavor and looked like excrement. At first, Tom bought every expensive nut butter under the sun, so they were like 25 bucks a pop. Neither of us had a food or nutrition background.
Miner: I started nerding out at Whole Foods, throwing random ingredients together. Neither of us grew up eating bars. We spent six weeks on Saturday afternoons messing around with recipes, and thankfully, they started to improve. At the time, we were a cottage food company, which meant we could only sell direct to consumers.
That’s definitely ambitious…
Miner: From the start, we ran our business like a lean tech startup. We narrowed it down to four recipes that we set out to test on real people at farmers' markets. If the response was good, we knew we’d have our proof of concept. So every Sunday, June through October, we were at the Highlands Square farmers' market.
It presented a unique set of challenges — two guys right out of college making dough in their kitchen, living with roommates, while trying to balance social lives. We learned a lot and got a lot of good feedback. People liked the fun aspect. Essentially we were encouraging people to play with their food. They also asked good questions, a lot that we couldn’t answer. We realized that if we wanted to be taken seriously as food scientists and as a nutritional empowerment company, we needed someone to be that authority. Maria (my girlfriend) is a certified nutrition therapy practitioner. She was already helping out with R&D (and loaning us her food processor), so we officially added her to the team in September.
How do you differentiate yourself from other bars?
Miner: For some of those bars, you have to have a chemistry degree to decipher the labels. From the start, we drew a hard line in the sand that we only wanted to use real food with no added sugar. Some people see constraints as bad, but we view them as a challenge. We’re not cheating with artificial flavors. There’s no sketchiness. No hiding behind labels. Even if customers don’t buy our product, we hope they learn something from our website.
Where are you now [in the process]?
Miner: December through January, we filed the paperwork to get FDA-regulated, paid the insurance, found a kitchen and got a wholesale license. We’re approved through all official channels and started cooking in our commercial kitchen in January.
McIntyre: Essentially, we took everything we learned and started back at square one. We finally have a business plan in place. We rebranded (last week) from Choice Foods to Unwrapp’d and are unveiling a new logo and new packaging soon.
Right now, our focus is on getting in more stores and spreading awareness. We just celebrated our one-year anniversary on April 5, the date we made it Facebook official. Our kitchen lease goes through June, at which time we’ll start looking for co-packers to help manufacture and scale distribution throughout Colorado.
Miner: If things go well, we’d even welcome more competition in the dough industry to show that the concept works. When we were pitching stores, it was really validating to see the buyers’ faces light up at something new when they think they’ve seen everything in an oversaturated bar market.
What spurred the name change?
McIntyre: A lot of the questions we got from the farmers' market. The product was confusing people. There’s nothing like it on the market, so they had nothing to compare it to. We think this new name will help educate consumers on what we are [and] say it without us having to explain it.
Miner: We’re not a bar with a wrapper so it made more sense to have a literal name rather than an esoteric one. Unwrapp’d is a mindset — a way of thinking. It’s our way of saying empower yourself to think outside the bar.
How does the team work together?
Miner: Reed and I have similar interests but very different styles of execution. He brings more of the Colorado hippie vibe. His ideas were very creative and emotional. I’m more structured and analytical. Once we brought on Maria, we became a much stronger unit with checks and balances.
So what’s the secret? How’d you make it taste so good? Even I’m a fan, and I don't like anything "healthy."
Miner: It’s all about finding the right combination of fruits and nuts. We use dates as an international sweetener. The texture of the dough is what people like. We aim to make it taste good on its own, but not limit your creativity if you want to add coconut flakes, protein powder or turn it into a shake. The challenge of using all-natural ingredients is that we treat it like a refrigerated product. Technically, our water levels don’t require refrigeration, but that’s how it tastes best.
McIntyre: When we were first starting out, I thought a cashew just tasted like a cashew, a walnut just tasted like a walnut, etc. But if you add one of those ingredients to something salient, it changes the flavor. Flax, cocoa nibs, all play together differently. Over time, we’ve learned what ingredients balance each other. I now know what kind of nut to add if I want something to taste sweeter or saltier. Basically, you just gotta know what your nuts taste like [laughs].
Does cutting the packaging really save that much money?
Miner: It does – our packaging saves about 10 percent of the cost. We pass all those savings on to the consumer. Our product retails for $8.99, which comes out to be about 75 cents an ounce. Typically anything without additives is going to cost at least $1 per ounce, so we’re pretty happy about our margins. One of our tubs makes about eight bars, which means if you use it to replace a box of your off-the-shelf bars, you could be saving $2-$3 a week.
What flavors are there? Any new ones on the horizon?
McIntyre: Right now we have mint chocolate, banana nut muffin, vanilla almond pecan, and chocolate chip cookie dough. Coming this summer is peanut butter chocolate and chocolate brownie, which will have an even higher protein content through different seeds. We’re really excited about the peanut butter; it tastes like a healthy Reese’s.
Seasonal items are also something we’re experimenting with, because it’s fun to get back in the kitchen. We played with chai in the fall and called it Festivus because it tasted like pumpkin spice and the holidays. Blueberry has since been retired but may make a comeback. One flavor that has always eluded us is apple pie, but maybe someday.
What’s your favorite?
Miner: Peanut butter chocolate and banana nut muffin.
Maria Capecelatro: Chocolate brownie, because it’s not as sweet; it has more of a bittersweet taste. Cookie dough is also very good.
McIntyre: Vanilla almond pecan has been a consistent favorite; it’s our top seller. It was the first one in the kitchen where we were like, “Oh, people will like this.”
What is the texture like when you eat the dough raw?
The raw dough comes in two textures. The paleo options without oats are reminiscent of traditional cookie dough texture: soft and flexible. The flavors with oats hold together more like like a chewy granola bar. Soft and flexible, with a stronger bind.
Does it come out crunchy or more like a Lara bar when baked?
The finished product can come out crunchy or soft and chewy dependent on how you bake it. The thinner you make your bars, the more crunch you'll give to them after 10-15 minutes in the oven. If you want a softer, chewier bar, leave them thicker before baking. You can even add a pinch of baking soda to help thicken it. We're working to update our site with even more recipes and guidance on ways to use the dough.
What creative recipes have people come up with?
Miner: Our creativity grew exponentially when Maria came on board. She’s a wizard in the kitchen.
Capecelatro: It’s dough, so it can really become anything. I bought 105 cookie cutters for photo shoots. I want to have a gingerbread-house competition at some point. One of my classmates at the Nutrition Therapy Institute made a frozen ice cream banana with the mint chocolate. She also made her own thin mints covered in chocolate. If we can get parents to make this into a healthy snack for their kids, it’s a million times better than packaged cookies from the store. I have friends with a variety of food allergies – dairy, gluten — so it’s nice knowing that if I bring this somewhere, everyone will be able to eat it.
McIntyre: As the biggest sweet tooth in the group, [I can say] you don’t have to be a triathlete to find this appealing.
Are you doing more farmers' markets this summer?
Miner: No, this year we’re focusing on events around the state. We feel like we know who our customers are. Sunday we’ll be at the Graffiti Run and later this summer at a Crossfit competition and the Taste of Louisville.
McIntyre: We started seeing some of the same people week after week at the farmers' market, so we wanted to diversify. Tom’s really good at making that human connection and remembering everyone who has bought from us. He has a mental Rolodex that he uses to shape blog posts of the demographic of that core customer.
What’s next for you guys?
Miner: We’re excited to get this out to more people. We want a national scope, but Colorado will always be where it started. Once we get to the point where we can give back, we can’t wait to get involved with philanthropy. The last farmers' market we did, we gave all the proceeds to the Action Center in Jefferson County. There are a couple ofcauses we’re all really passionate about; two of us already work with kids. Childhood obesity and reaching the young demographic is definitely close to our hearts.
McIntyre: I work at a public school and witness what they eat for lunch. Their brains are still growing, and they need good fuel.
Where can people try it and buy it?
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far?
McIntyre: That three regular people can start a business and people will like it. It was all hard work and not being afraid to fail over and over again.
Miner: It’s really interesting to hear people’s views on food. It’s easy to forget how far the U.S. still has to go. We have people trying to colonize Mars, but we haven’t figured out how to combat obesity. At the farmers' markets, people would share really personal stories with us about their struggles with weight loss and nutrition. One had MS, and you could just see her face light up when she realized she didn’t have to eat salad all day, every day, empowering herself to change for the better. Then you see people on the other end of the spectrum who only ask about fat and calories because they read in the tabloids that’s what they’re supposed to care about. It became pretty clear our job of educating people will never be done.
Test Unwrapp'd out for yourself; eat it straight from the tub like cookie dough or follow these Unwrapp'd recipes for chewy or crunchy snacks baked in the oven.
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