Like many pursuits in life, this one started out with a selfish objective: I simply wanted to feel better. I was in my late 20s, led a generally healthy lifestyle, but felt like my body was falling apart. Eventually I was diagnosed with Celiac disease, and the resulting gluten-free diet was life-changing. Within two weeks I felt better than I could ever remember. I clearly remember those first days of being able to move without joint pain. It was glorious. For years, I had been focused on eating well, but it wasn't until this time that I truly realized the impact what you put in your body can have on your health.
At the time, I was traveling everywhere for my sales job. That could mean an all-day car trip to see a customer or a 15-hour flight to China or Australia. My personal favorites were the overnight flights to Brazil. Upon arrival, I would change from sweat pants to business clothes, in the airport bathroom. Then I would go straight to work pretending I felt great. There was no time for excuses; it was my job and I certainly didn't have the luxury of a "rest" day. At least I had the Brazilian rocket fuel coffee to help. I do miss that coffee.
But there was a bigger problem. What would I eat when I was traveling and dining with international colleagues and customers? At that time, no one really knew what gluten was and attempting to choose safe foods from menus I could not read was awkward and frustrating.
The GFB didn't exist. There were two brands of bars that were gluten-free, so I packed dozens of them in my suitcase and car. One particular day in China, while eating my third bar of the day, I clearly remember thinking, "I'm tired of hating my food. I can do better than this." I asked myself for the first time, what If I actually enjoyed this bar and looked forward to eating it? It probably took me a year and a thousand bars to finally realize other people, gluten-free or not, were wondering the same thing. With that realization the concept for The GFB was born.
How does one start a food business? Good question. I had almost zero baking and food skills. Amazingly, I didn't see this as a hurdle. I believed in the mission, and I figured sometimes you just have to start by putting one foot in front of the other.
I managed to find a great guy in the help wanted section of Craigslist (that's a story for another time) with some gluten-free baking experience, and his recipes were amazing. I figured if we could make bars that taste this good, the rest would fall into place. I still believe that; if the fundamentals are strong, everything else is just details. In our world, that meant producing the high-quality products that make our customers happy while treating our team, customers, business partners, and planet the way we’d like to be treated. That's why we created a zero waste facility, developed an inclusive hiring program, and chose to promote from within whenever possible.
The biggest challenge we had in the beginning was finding a dedicated gluten-free manufacturing facility to make our bars. That's a fairly easy thing to find now, but it was impossible 10 years ago. So, we started our own little facility (by “facility,” I mean a glorified garage with a mixer and some tables). We made everything by hand back then and produced about 2,000 bars on a good day. Today we can make about 35,000 bars in the same amount of time.
About 18 months after we started, our hometown grocer, Meijer, provided us with an opportunity to get on their shelves. Meijer is based here in Michigan but has grown to over 240 stores across the Midwest. I was still working at that sales job and I asked a good friend for advice. He said "If you’re thinking there is any way you screw up this Meijer opportunity because you are trying to do two jobs, stop. You have to quit your job." He was right, so I quit my job––a job that I had worked to get for the first 10 years of my career and that I only got after putting myself through grad-school and racking up six figures in debt. Looking back on it, that decision seems harder today than it did back then. Again, I believed in the mission, in not giving up, and in putting one foot in front of the other.
I'm not sure The GFB would exist today without Meijer taking a chance on us and providing us an opportunity to succeed. That is something I'm grateful for every day.
If you are considering something new––a job change, a move, starting a business, whatever––the question is, do you believe in the mission?
If you are considering giving someone a chance, a chance maybe they aren't quite ready for––the question is, do they believe in the mission?
Nearly ten years later, we've moved our facilities three times, grown from zero employees to near 60, and expanded our distribution from zero stores to about 13,000 in the US and Canada. We've come a long way, but I believe the best is yet to come. That's what belief in a mission will do for you.