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Bixby & Co. is headquartered on Rockland's working waterfront. Yet, in the tradition of entrepreneurs and hard workers everywhere, the company's young owner, Kate McAleer, has an office that faces away from the water, to a parking lot.
When Mainebiz came to visit, there was a tractor trailer idling just outside of the office's only window.
“Our dream is to have an office looking out on the water,” McAleer, 27, says on tour of the building, part of which still bears the machinery from a former ice plant.
McAleer, along with her parents, Donna and Gordon McAleer, make up three of the four employees at Bixby, which since its founding in December 2011 has increased its presence in Whole Foods Market from 28 stores to more than 200. By next year, Bixby chocolate bars will be in more than 500 stores across much of the country.
In April, Bixby won $30,000 through Gorham Savings Bank's LaunchPad competition. It has also received backing from the Libra Foundation and the Maine Technology Institute. McAleer went through the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development's “Top Gun” program.
Kate McAleer grew up in Goshen, N.Y., about an hour from New York City. Her family had a vacation house in Rockport (that they now call home). Her parents were determined to “retire” in Maine.
They did make the move to Maine, but it has hardly been a retirement, with both generations working long hours to build Bixby, named for Kate's great-great grandmother, Lillian Bixby.
“I've been coming to Maine all my life and my parents wanted to retire here. So it's kind of a convergence of life goals,” Kate McAleer says. “We really wanted to move. We love the food scene here and love the Midcoast.”
As Kate tells the story from the offices at Bixby (with her mom working within earshot), she studied at New York University, majoring in East Asian studies and minoring in art history and French, while playing on NYU's golf team. After college, she started a graduate program in decorative arts and design, but grew frustrated.
She sought a career that was both “fulfilling and empowering,” and her master's degree work was neither, she says. “If you could run your own business, that would be better,” Donna McAleer, a retired recruiter, told her daughter.
“I had always been interested in history, culture, travel and food, especially food as an expression of culture,” Kate says. “I decided to pivot in my life. I quit grad school.”
She joined the pastry program at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York City. She was interested in chocolate and candy, in particular, and looking at ways of “reinventing candy.”
She and her parents developed recipes with natural ingredients — nuts, dried fruit, spices and, of course, chocolate — and started testing them. Kate entered a program for young entrepreneurs started by YouthTrade, which was launched at Babson College in Massachusetts.Whole Foods, in turn, was the first retailer to start selling YouthTrade products.
Almost as soon as Bixby had a product, it had a buyer: Whole Foods, which was ready to put Bixby bars in 38 stores in the Northeast by March 2012.
“At the time, we had 500 square feet of space in upstate New York,” McAleer says. “We were 'artisanal,' meaning we had no machinery.”
They were still doing tempering — a method of heating and cooling chocolate — by hand, in a bowl.
“Getting into Whole Foods galvanized Bixby & Co.,” Kate says. “We were now going full bore. I went out to every store to demo the products.”
Suddenly, the McAleers were tackling issues of distribution, freight, manufacturing, barcodes, shipping palettes and so on. At that time, all the candy was made by hand and hand-wrapped.
In the process of working with Whole Foods, McAleer cultivated mentors there. They coached her about ingredients, encouraging her to get certifications, which Bixby did: Packaging now bears the labels of being Gluten Free, Rainforest Alliance Certified Cocoa, Certified Women's Business Enterprise, Vegan Verified, Earth Kosher Certified, Non GMO Project Verified. Her mentors advised her about which trade shows to attend and how to grow the scale of the company. Bixby also received financing through Whole Foods' local producer loan program.
The grant from Gorham Savings helped pay for mixing equipment. Other funding helped pay for chocolate machines and, possibly the biggest time-saver, a machine that wraps the product.
Amid the rapid growth, in February 2013, the McAleers made their move from New York to Maine. With the help of Rockland's development director, John Holden, they found a small space in Belfast and eventually moved to the Rockland waterfront.
To give the logo and packaging a contemporary look consistent with Whole Foods shelves, Bixby hired the Portland branding firm Pulp+Wire. For the boxes used on store shelves, the company hired J.S. McCarthy Printers in Augusta.
Bixby bars are sold throughout Maine, but the widest reach is in Whole Foods stores. By next year, through an alliance with Rhode Island-based United Natural Foods Inc., Bixby bars will be in more than 500 stores nationwide, mostly Whole Foods stores.
“We're right plunk in the middle of a national launch,” Donna McAleer says.
“Natural foods: It's here, it's for real. It's a real opportunity,” Kate McAleer adds.