January 6, 2012

Entrepreneur Spotlight – Kate’s Real Food

The Teton mountains in Wyoming have long drawn adventurers.  First Native Americans called the area their home, then fur traders looking to get rich, pioneers who hoped to set down roots, and now, it’s hikers, bikers, skiers, and climbers who flock to the area.  Kate Schade is one of these modern-day adventurers and it was her quest for food – real food – to help her fuel her adventures that led her to create Tram Bars (named such because Kate and her friends ate them in the Tram line at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort), a delicious, easy-to-eat, bar made from real ingredients.   What started as a bar just for friends that Kate made when she had time (and wasn’t working multiple other jobs), is now a buzzing small business based in Victor, Idaho with products sold nationwide.

I had the opportunity to talk with Katie Neary, the first employee ever hired by Kate’s Real Food and Kate Schade’s right-hand woman to learn more about how Kate’s Real Food went from a home-made snack to a growing company.

How did Kate Schade start the business?  What was she doing prior to starting Kate’s Real Food? 

Kate came out West to play, and that’s primarily what she did for years, juggling a number of jobs on the side. She was the quintessential ski bum, and her passion for play was really what inspired her to dabble in bar making. She basically just didn’t want to stop skiing to eat, so she made bars out of whatever she could find in her kitchen and ate them in the Tram line- thus, they became “Tram Bars”. She’d bring some to share, and her friends started chipping in for ingredients to get their own batch. They were always encouraging her to launch a business, but she didn’t want anything that would take away from her play time. She was just skiing all day, then working at (restaurants) at night for quite a while.

Little by little, Tram Bar continued to develop, despite Kate’s efforts to keep it a casual side thing. She sold some at Wilson Backcountry Sports initially,  just wrapped in syran wrap and a gear sticker. After a few friends at Cosmic Apple Gardens, where Kate worked as the workshare manager, prodded her along by designing a logo for her, and helping her get the official business paperwork in place, she began selling them at other shops around the area. But it was still low-key. She’d make bars in Nora’s kitchen (where she also waited tables part-time), and deliver them on her days off. But the demand continued to rise. More people inquired about selling them, or visitors from out-of-town would want to know where they could buy them. So, a website and a small commercial kitchen in a Driggs, Idaho basement followed.

However, in late 2009, the business took a turn when Bruce Thaler tried a bar at Nora’s and asked Kate about partnering. Kate was hesitant, since she really liked her lifestyle, but it seemed that she either really needed to make a go of it, or drop it entirely. After hours on the phone, and consulting friends and lawyers, Kate and Bruce partnered in June 2010 as Tram Bar LLC dba “Kate’s”. They started with four employees, three part-time bar makers, and one office employee (me), and have continued to grow!

How quickly did the product take off in the Teton County area since it was locally made?

It’s hard to say, because once Kate and Bruce formed their partnership and really started to make a big sales push, there were already lots of stores in Jackson, Victor and Driggs that already carried the bars. Kate did a lot of grassroots marketing efforts which helped significantly to get the word out- handing out samples in the Tram line or at the base of the pass. People were really receptive to a local product, and since it actually tastes good they’ve remained popular. Once new flavors and new packaging were introduced they really started taking off!

I noticed that Kate’s Real Food products are available nationwide, does the company attend tradeshows or have a sales team/distributors in order to get your products in front of retailers across the country?

Yes! We just attended our first trade show this past fall in Baltimore, the Natural Products Expo East Show, and we have two more coming up in California this winter. But initially we were just taking a few small road trips (Colorado, Oregon, Montana, Utah, etc.) to try to establish Kate’s in an area similar to Jackson (active, outdoorsy, health-conscious places). However, it’s pretty expensive to have folks on the road, so we spent a lot of time making cold calls and sending samples to stores that were interested. Now that we’re growing we’re planning to focus on getting on board with regional and national distributors.

Has there been any trouble getting products with names like “Tram Bar” or “Grizzly Bar” to be well adopted by customers in, say, Connecticut, who may have never skied the Jackson Hole Tram or never seen a Grizzly?

The Grizzly Bar was actually born to combat that very problem. Early on, when we were still just selling them locally, Jenny Lake Boating wanted to carry the Tram Bar, but worried that summertime visitors who came to see the Parks wouldn’t understand what the “Tram” was. So, we just developed a different label to put on the bar for the summer tourists. However, as we expanded, it obviously became a problem since they were the same thing, so the Grizzly Bar is now just a dark chocolate version of the Tram. Outside of the area though, it hasn’t seemed to be a big problem…or at least no more than any of the other hurdles we faced in launching the bars. Packaging was a big issue, since it just didn’t look very professional. Also, once we had a bigger line of bars the names seemed less important since they all carried an outdoor theme.

Along those same lines, the products and brand appears to appeal to the Western outdoors mindset – have you noticed that there you have more sales in the Western half of the US or is this really a product that’s well accepted by anyone with an outdoors mindset regardless of where they live?

The Western states have definitely been better for us in general. However, it seems a lot of that has been because we focused on really saturating certain markets in places that cater to outdoorsy/active lifestyle folks. For example, bike shops in Arizona have been huge for us, co-ops in Oregon and California, or gear shops in Colorado and Utah. We really worked on getting in to a lot of stores in an area, and establishing a brand presence. On the East Coast we’ve run into some issues with really needing to get into a big chain in order to establish that same presence, which we are working on, but it takes time. Recently, we’re working on spending more time nurturing the accounts that already love our bars instead of trying to get into a million stores that might not be the right fit.

The other thing that has helped immensely, regardless of the location, is we always send little samples (we call the “nugs”) so that customers can try them… Every buyer we talk to says that this is the key to getting folks hooked who, as you mentioned earlier, might not know what the hell a “Grizzly” is, much less why they’d want this bar they’ve never heard of.

I know that you’ve had a lot of PR in outdoor publications.  What other forms of marketing or advertising does the company do?  Is it always focused on the outdoor and active customers?

We try to keep all of our marketing efforts in line with our mission (“Kate’s exists to provide delicious real food; promote outdoor play, and support sustainable organic farming”), which means we sponsor a lot of biking, running and skiing races, as well as support trail building and adaptive sports programs. We also have a number of ambassador/athletes that get bars for their own personal consumption, as well as taking them to their events to hand out to fellow competitors and fans. However, some of our best accounts are small, natural/organic grocery stores, so we’ve been increasing our efforts to provide on-site “demos” to reach an audience of people who might not be as active, but really care about healthy, quality food.

How many people are currently on staff at Kate’s Real Food?  What are some of the challenges of being a small company that’s growing so quickly?

Currently, we have crew eight full-time people working at Kate’s, not including Kate or Bruce. There are lots of challenges to being a start-up in general! Getting funding to grow is a huge challenge. You need money to pay employees, buy ingredients, keep the lights on… and you have to sell a LOT of energy bars just to maintain the basic functions of the business. Then you need money to pay for new design work and packaging to make sure we have a shelf presence. We need to attend tradeshows, which are expensive, and have to give away lots of bars at events to spread the word about Kate’s, or send samples to prospective buyers. It adds up quickly! One thing that growing quickly made us realize is that with a higher volume of sales, our customer service department has a lot more work to do as well- answering questions, checking on shipments, etc. So, initially we were excited to just be getting into lots of different stores, however we now realize that it’s worth it to make sure they really are going to be a solid account… otherwise it’s just a headache. Keeping things organized was a huge transition as well, because at first we just tracked much of our information on spreadsheets, now we are fully integrated with a CRM database to manage it all.

Trying to juggle so many things at once to get a business up and running is the really stressful part, though. Trying to prioritize when you have a limited staff and budget becomes agonizing. Especially when everything feels like a priority! Things often take longer than we’d like, and it feels like we needed everything yesterday, so it’s tricky to maintain a level head about it all.

Kate’s Real Food Bars are made in the company’s Kosher certified facility in Victor, Idaho from ‘real’ and organic ingredients.  If you’re interested in trying one of the bars for yourself, check out the list of retail stores that carry their products or you can order online.

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