How two CEOs made a protein bar stand out among overwhelming competition

Scott Kitun

December 11, 2018 · 8 minutes read

10 Steps to Snack-Food Domination with the CEOs of JiMMYBAR!

If you want to be a guest on the Technori podcast, there are a number of ways to approach us. Contact our PR firm Walker Sands; email us; tweet @Technori; slide into my DMs on Instagram (@kitun).

But the surefire way to my heart is through my stomach: send food (or booze).

Recently the guys from clean foods company JiMMYBAR! did exactly that, catching my attention with a box of their newest good-for-you energy bars.

The snack bar space is crowded, and the “healthy” food sector, even more so. But even items with the sheen of health are stuffed with unpronounceable ingredients. They might be tasty, but they’re basically poison. (I’m looking at you, Zero Lemon Vitamin Water).

Plus, it’s so damn hard to differentiate these kinds of products on the shelf. When I first heard of JiMMYBAR!, I thought, another bar –– here we go. And then I saw it and tasted it. I thought, holy sh*t. This is legit. They’re delicious through and through, without any of the weird chalkiness or metallic aftertaste that many other bars have. How do they do it?

Fast-forward: I sat down with the co-CEOs of the Chicago-based company, Jim Simon and Jason Wadler, to talk about making snacks with real ingredients that taste really good … while making real money, too.

1.    Make it a family affair

JiMMYBAR! is the brainchild of Jim, a serial entrepreneur, and his sister Annette Delprete, who has decades of culinary experience.

Jim’s background is in tech startups. Prior to JiMMYBAR!, he ran business development at Aggregate Knowledge, a Silicon Valley-based data management platform. “In 2013, we were about to get acquired, and I was thinking about what the next thing should be,” he says. “I wanted to do a tangible product.”

Meanwhile, Annette and her husband were then the busy owners of Filippo’s Ristorante, a longtime Lincoln Park favorite that later closed after more than 22 years.

“They’re both classically trained chefs, and they come up with all the recipes,” says Jim of his sister and brother-in-law. “We’ve got some unfair advantages.”

The Simon siblings launched the company in 2013 with four flavors and small investments from family and friends, including Jason, a childhood friend, who later became a board member. Three years later, JiMMYBAR!s were on store shelves across the U.S. and Canada.

Earlier this year, Jason became co-CEO, bringing his own 30 years of experience to the table, including 18 years at Leapfrog Online, where he helped build Leapfrog from a startup into a leading performance marketing agency.

Since he came on board, the brand relaunched with a bright, clean new look and new flavors with even fewer ingredients.

The JiMMYBAR! family is tight-knit team. “It was my eight-year-old niece Jackie who named the company,” writes Jim on the company website. “Although she wanted the name to be the ‘Uncle Dummy Bar’.”

2.    Sell more than air –– have a mission

Jim recalls a moment earlier in his career when he began to contemplate a mission-based career. “What did I do today to help humanity?” he remembers thinking. “I bought banner ads, I sold banner ads.”

Years later, he began plotting his next move. “In digital, you’re selling air,” he says. “I didn’t want to sell air again.”  

JiMMYBAR!took shape as a response to both a market opportunity and a heartfelt cause. “I wanted to do something that’s good for the world,” he says. “Obesity and heart disease are still the number one killers in America. We are the second-heaviest nation. We’ve got weight problems, and people turn to natural foods.”

3.    Reject Frankenfood

Corporate interests have prioritized their profits over our health, Jim says. “There’s been no innovation in food in the past 50 years that’s been good for us. It’s been good for money.”

It’s difficult, he says, to make healthy choices, because so many products are loaded with artificial ingredients (and/or empty calories) dressed up in wholesome-looking packaging.

“When you walk through Whole Foods or any really good grocery store, there’s still a lot of crap,” he says. “It’s really hard to figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s not. It shouldn’t be that hard with food.”

The protein bar space is rife with unpronounceable ingredients, with gives Jim pause. “I don’t think God came up with any food with 16 letters,” he laughs. “If you have to google the ingredients, it’s probably not very good for you. Eat a JiMMYBAR!. There’s nothing in there that you haven’t heard of before.”

4.    Go low on sugar, high on protein

What is in a JiMMYBAR!? There are three lines (High Protein, Classic, and the <100 calorie Skinny Jimmy) so the ingredients vary, but they’re real foods –– things like nuts, fruit, honey, whey, soy, and chocolate. Most flavors have no preservatives and no added sugars and are gluten-free and/or dairy-free. There are also vegan and nut-free options.

The company’s original bars, the Classic Snacks, are date-sweetened fruit and nut bars. The JiMMYBAR! crew knew that a few competitors (like RXBAR) were also doing that kind of bar really well.

So when they expanded their range, they wanted to, as Jim explains, “attack something that’s ever been done,” he says. “And that is the high protein, low sugar bar. There’s a few out there who are doing extremely well. But they haven’t nailed it on taste, at least to the consumer’s mind.”

Jason agrees. “Taste, as well as having ingredients that you feel good about eating. So not the poison.”

They nailed it. With the high-protein line, I think JiMMYBAR! is right where they want to be: between the hardcore athletic protein bar and the general, appeals-to-every-consumer snack. How did they decide which track to take?

Jason explains: “there’s low-protein bars, like a KIND bar,” he says. “There are medium-protein, like RX[BAR], with about 12 grams or protein. Then there’s the high-protein bars, which are 18 to 30 grams. We started off low. But we leapfrogged over medium because RX was doing a great job, competing with Clif, really.”

“So we let those guys battle it out. We thought there’s a white space with high protein. Most of those bars have sh*t ingredients that you need a PhD in biochemistry to read.”

5.    Make it an easy switch

Diets don’t work because willpower is finite. If we feel deprived, we’re toast. To Jim and Jason, prioritizing flavor is directly tied to their big-picture goal of helping us eat better every day.

“It’s not like you’re going from eating a doughnut in the morning to something that tastes terrible, and you’re not having fun,” says Jason. “You won’t be able to stick to it. This way, if we’re giving you a great experience, it tastes great and it’s good for you, and it’s an easy decision for you to make –– an easy switch, then we’ve won the battle. We’re helping people, and that’s the mission of the company.”

6.    Create a buzz

JiMMYBAR!’s offerings include several “boosted” flavors with ingredients that add a bit of an extra kick. The caramel-chocolate-peanut Eye of the Tiger includes anti-inflammatory turmeric, while Beauty (aka White Chocolate Berry Bliss) has added collagen.

Some also include guarana, a seed from Brazil that’s a natural source of caffeine. “It packs two or three times the caffeine that coffee beans do,” says Jim. “But it gives you this funky head buzz that you don’t get from coffee. Coffee hits your heart. This hits your head.”

Their cookies-and-cream-flavored Woke AF bar (“woke and focused”) is “boosted” with guarana as well as Omega-3 and MCT oils. “I wanted to come out with a bar with caffeine that helps brain health, equivalent to –– with a wink and a smile –– an Adderall.”

7.    Cheeky, not macho, branding

JiMMYBAR!’s brand –– whimsical bright-blue packaging, clever flavor names, “gettin’ JiMMY with it” tagline –– reads as fun, approachable, and an outright rebuke to all the hyper-masculine, quasi-scientific protein bars on the market.

“If you look at … not just bars, but natural foods in general, they’re pretty frickin’ serious,” says Jim. “And a lot of them are “nitro,” “turbo,” all this bullshit. Those are usually the brands that are the worst, as far as ingredients go,” he says.

8.    Go straight to Silicon Valley … cafeterias

“Being tech guys and not being CPG [consumer packaged goods] guys, we dipped our toes into grocery. And it’s expensive. You have to pay to play to get in. But we didn’t want to go out and raise a lot of money.

Instead, they took a different approach, selling directly to the cafeterias of some of the world’s largest tech companies: Google, Facebook, Uber. “They buy in bulk,” says Jason, “and they give it away for free, because they want their employees eating healthy.”

Getting products into grocery stores can take a long time and a lot of price negotiation. “But tech companies just want the best stuff out there,” Jason explains. “It’s not the biggest brands, it’s the coolest brands. It’s brands like us that are making really interesting, innovative products. That’s a big chunk of our business right now.”

9. Grow and innovate simultaneously

Building on their tech-company success, the JiMMYBAR team branched out to colleges. “With names like Woke AF, it’s not really hard,” says Jason.

JiMMYBAR! snacks can also be found at  indie health food stores and gyms as well as at selected regional Whole Foods (“a no-brainer,” Jason says), Jewel-Osco, Walgreens, Costco, Wawa, Circle K and 7-Eleven stores, to name a few. The list gets larger all the time.

What’s their strategy moving forward? I ask the guys whether they’re going to stick with their core bestsellers or constantly create and test new products.

“It goes two ways,” says Jim. “One is against cost management, to make sure that we are being responsible with the way that we’re creating new bars, but the other is to continue to have that innovation because that is what gets us some traction in places where we normally wouldn’t get it.”  

How expensive is it to develop new flavors or products?

“It’s time consuming,” says Jim. “What you just tasted took about eight months to come up with. It’s got to taste amazing and we’re not going to put it out. But we print everything, like our wrappers, digitally so that we can make tweaks. We’re more on the side of innovation and moving quick.”

10.    It’s not a diet

I think JiMMYBARS taste so good that the company doesn’t necessarily have to compete with the glut of “natural,” “healthy” bars in the marketplace. It can just be a snack –– a healthy cheat. I would call it a diet bar, but it’s not a diet, I tell the two CEOs. It’s just a “good for you” bar.

That’s exactly the point, says Jason. “You’re not missing anything, right? You’re not giving anything up.”