November 15, 2017

Maine Food Insider: Redd bar looks to its East Coast roots after big year out West

Courtesy / Redd bar
Courtesy / Redd bar
Redd bar founder Alden Blease began by creating a "bag of dough" to provide himself with healthy food while he was in college. Now the Redd bar product line that evolved from those modest beginnings is in more than 1,000 stores.

Redd bar started small: Its founder Alden Blease was a student at the University of Maine with little money but a big desire to eat healthy foods. He started buying raw ingredients in bulk at a health food store, using what he'd learned about vegan and high-nutrition foods and mixing them in a bag.

He called it his bag of dough. "Because it really was a bag of dough," he said this week, sitting in the Redd bar office at Brunswick's Fort Andross mill.

He's come a long way since those days a few years ago when he was trying to figure out how to feed himself.

Now the biggest problem he and CEO Peter Van Alstine have is figuring out how to meet demand.

The company earlier this year announce a $1.5 million investment goal had been exceeded by 30% in a second round of funding. The first round, in 2016, had raised $1 million.

The West Coast, in particular, is eating the bars up. In recent months, the company forged deals with Sprouts, Zupans, New Seasons and California Whole Foods markets on the West Coast, representing hundreds of stores. Redd also recently became the on-campus nutrition bar for the Nike complex in Beaverton, Ore.

Online sales and marketing has also taken off, including the company's website; Thrive, an internet co-op for healthy foods; and Amazon Vendor Central, which is "going like gangbusters," Van Alstine said.

The marketing push is supported by an energetic online presence, including 7,000 newsletter followers and the company Instagram account's 11,000 followers, the domain of early Blease partner Reed Allen, described on the company's website as chief ninja.

Plans for 2018 include a yet-to-be revealed sixth flavor and refurbishing a former military truck into a rolling Redd laboratory for West Coast events.

Van Alstine also said that in 2018 "Redd is coming east."

West to East

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Redd, which manufactures about 150,000 bars per month, received early support from Hannaford, which stocks the bars on its supermarket shelves.

Blease first began selling his bag of dough to classmates. He named it Rawgasm. Then he left school to develop the product and sell it commercially.

"I realized I should go from a bag to a bar," he said.

He had one flavor of the vegan protein bars — chocolate — when he contracted with Gagne Foods in Bath, which makes biscuits and baked goods. Along the way he followed the advice of Pine State Trading, which said it would distribute the bars, but only if he changed the name. In 2014, the bars became Redd, which stands for Research Enhanced Design and Development.

When demand increased and he started adding flavors, Blease had to move on from Gagne, and found a packaging company in California that could produce the bars.

Now, the majority of the company's retail business is on the West Coast.

But Blease and Van Alstine said Maine served as a good launching pad and it's the company's home.

"Maine is a great place to build a minimum value product," Blease said. "If you can test and sell it in Maine, you can anywhere."

The investment community in the state and New England has been welcoming, and the support from Maine angels has been a part of the company's ability to grow, Van Alstine said.

Now that the company has a strong foothold and financing, and a robust West Coast presence, focus is turning back home.

"We love Hannaford," Blease said. The supermarket approached the company about carrying the bar, and has worked with them on things like price, promotions and display. Apart from Hannaford, though, Redd isn't pursuing supermarket distribution.

The company prefers to sell the bars through online marketing and events, as well as other retail alternatives. The bar can be found in local stores from coffee shops to L.L.Bean.

"The Maine business community has been tremendously supportive," Van Alstine said. Early supporters include Coffee by Design and Pine State Trading.

Finding a place

Van Alstine, who has been involved in a number of businesses and startups, said he was looking for an opportunity when he met Blease.

"I was sorting of looking for what the next thing was going to be, but not necessarily an early-stage business," he said.

He wanted something that had a creative force and energy behind it, and where the founder was committed to what he was doing.

When he talked to Blease in March 2015 at the Sugarloaf Banked Slalom, where Blease was selling Redd bars, he found what he'd been looking for.

"I thought, this could be interesting," Van Alstine said.

Van Alstine has been with Redd bar since July 2015. He's enthusiastic about the company's online presence, its West Coast and East Coast marketing teams, Maine's funding scene and the Maine seed tax credit — all the things that drive business success.

Redd bar has three staff and five contract employees, and about 20 "brand ambassadors" who help with marketing and events. The company now turns about about 150,000 bars a month.

Blease said that when he got serious about marketing his creations, what's happening now is what he'd envisioned.

But the business end of things doesn't seem to interest him as much as the creative part.

"He's always experimenting," Van Alstine said. "Left to his own devices, he would spend a significant amount of time creating."

Blease said he's driven to create flavors that are authentic. "We're not putting in ingredients that do things that nature doesn't do," he said.

But the bar also has to have a texture that's appealing and keep the same vegan and protein-rich foundation he'd aimed for from the beginning.

The nutrition bar food category is competitive, and there are a lot of choices. Van Alstine said Redd is battling for its segment.

He added, "But we want to put ourselves on the right side of the category."

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