Buy a bar, feed a child: From Cougar Town to mission-driven marketing, meet the CEO of This Bar Saves Lives

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

For every bar sold, This Bar Saves Lives donates a packet of life-saving food to a child in need
For every bar sold, This Bar Saves Lives donates a packet of life-saving food to a child in need
If you spot a hot guy handing out samples in a Whole Foods store that looks kind of familiar (if you’re a fan of Jane the Virgin, Cougar Town or Veronica Mars, that is), it could be a case of wishful thinking. Conversely you might just have stumbled across actor Ryan Devlin explaining how buying his granola bars could help to save children’s lives.

Devlin - who co-founded mission-driven brand This Bar Saves Lives​ with Todd Grinnell​ and Ravi Patel​ (with some help from Kristen Bell​) after a life-changing trip to Liberia - acknowledges that the celebrity factor has generated a lot of free PR, something many aspiring food brands would kill for.

But free PR and a catchy brand name that sums up your mission (for each bar sold, L.A-based This Bar Saves Lives donates one packet of life-saving food aid to children in need around the world) will only take you so far, he tells FoodNavigator-USA:

“We had to make this work with the wrapper off, like any other food brand, from the grassroots up. I’m a huge fan of the Newman’s Own brand, but I remember when Paul Newman started it he said something along the lines of, ‘People will buy this product once because my face is on it, but they won’t buy it again ​[unless it can hold its own on shelf].”

We had to make the best damn bars out there as well as having a great mission

Retailers, meanwhile, like the idea of a mission-driven brand, but they won’t allocate space to something that doesn’t sell, adds Devlin, who still does in-store demos every month in order to get direct feedback on the formulations, branding and the mission.

“Sometimes people will do a double-take if they recognize me from a TV show​, but mostly they will tell me whether they think we have too much sugar or not enough protein, whether they love that we have almonds, or whether they prefer cashews…" 

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This Bar Saves Lives was born after Ryan Devlin​ and Todd Grinnell​ met children suffering from acute malnutrition during a visit to Liberia in 2009 and witnessed first-hand how effective PlumpyNut emergency food packets could be in tackling the problem.

The concept was simple (buy a bar, feed a child), says Devlin, who – along with Grinnell - spent the better part of a year wrestling with granola, fruit, binders and nut butters before teaming up consultancy JPG Resources (run by former Kashi exec Jeff Grogg) to work out how to turn their idea into a commercially viable business.

“When we started we had absolutely no idea what we were doing,” ​recalls Devlin.

“We wanted something with broad appeal but also gourmet flavor profiles and very high quality ingredients. The team at JPG helped us with everything from scaling up for production, finding co-manufacturers, getting Non-GMO Project verified, and since meeting them I’ve learned more than I think I ever wanted to know about how to build a granola bar.”

While he now works with sales professionals and brokers, Devlin and the other co-founders began like any other start-up. “We pounded the pavements, going to coffee shops, co-ops, natural food retailers, but pretty soon we were talking to Whole Foods, Google, Starbucks and some big hotel chains.”

He adds: “We have an incredible team now, but no one knows the brand as well as I do, or is more passionate about what we’re trying to do, so I am still involved in every major sales meeting.”

In some cases, says Devlin, "we have managed to get some retailers to waive slotting fees and free fill requirements, but in general, we don’t get special treatment; we’re there with everyone else with three or four SKUs in 15 linear feet of space trying to cut through all the noise, although we sometimes get great secondary placement.

“From the start, we knew that with the wrapper off, with the mission stripped away​, thatwe had to make a food product that people would love and enjoy and buy over and over again. We had to make the best damn bars out there as well as having a great mission,” ​adds Devlin, who likes to think big (in the ‘summary’ box in his Linkedin profile, he observes: ‘I want to change the world. Too broad?​’).

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Left-to-right: Ryan Devlin (co-founder), Kristen Bell (advisory board member), Ravi Patel (co-founder) and Todd Grinnell (co-founder)

We’re on a really high growth trajectory now

And so far, the plan is paying off, big time, with the brand now rolling out to 2,000 stores, coffee shops and workplaces nationwide - including 1,000 Target stores - and deals with leading retailers lined up that look set to significantly expand distribution in 2016 and 2017, he says.

“We’re on a really high growth trajectory now. I would estimate that in 2016 we’ll probably donate somewhere around three million packets of food in addition to what you’re seeing on the counter already ​[you can track how many packets have been donated on the homepage of the website​] and we’re looking at probably 15-20 million packets in 2017.

“We’ve also just hired Kristina Eriksen ​[former CFO at NutraHealth Partners and ThinkThin] as president, and a national sales manager who was formerly at Honest Company, and we’re continuing to build out our team.”

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It hit us like a train…

So how did they come up with the brand name?

“Todd and I have to give credit to our wives for this​,” says Devlin, who assumed the role of CEO earlier this year and now runs the business full time [“… before we had four people running and not running the company, simultaneously, so it was a case of someone stepping up​.”]

 “We just couldn’t figure out what we should name this brand. We knew we were doing something different, and we had a great tagline, ‘this bar saves lives,’ but no brand, so we were looking at Swahili words and various other cool-sounding names, and our wives just said why don’t you call it ‘this bar saves lives,’ and it hit us like a train, because that is exactly what the brand is all about.”

Buy a bar, feed a child

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Each time you buy a This Bar Saves Lives bar, the company donates a packet of PlumpyNut (a paste made from peanuts, milk powder, sugar, vegetable oils, vitamins and minerals) or Nutributter (made from peanuts, sugar, vegetable oils, skimmed milk powder, maltodextrin, whey and a vitamin and mineral complex) to a child in need via non-profit partners​.

The main producer of PlumpyNut/NutriButter that TBSL works with is Edesia in Rhode Island, but it also partners with manufacturers producing the products in Haiti and other parts of the world. The packs are then distributed by partners including Save the Children and Action Against Hunger.

Strategic investors

As for financing, he says, “First it was friends and family, bootstrapping, but as we’ve shown a really solid revenue model we’ve attracted outside investment, and some very strategic investors, including Rohan Oza ​[a serial entrepreneur who has invested in brands from Vitaminwater and Smartwater to Popchips and Bai5].

“We are actually launching a financing round right now as we’re predicting huge growth over the next couple of years. The forecasts might sound meteoric, but they are based on partnerships we’re making, so it’s not pie in the sky stuff.”  

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The MSRP for each bar is $2.69, at least 25 cents of which must be built into the margin structure to pay for the packs of PlumpyNut or NutriButter.

There are four flavors: Peanut butter & jelly; Dark chocolate cherry & sea salt; Madagascar vanilla, almond & honey; and Wild blueberry pistachio. This Kid Saves Lives bars come in chocolate chip, and wild berries flavors.

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