By Chris Olsen
The mountains in Denver were Lara Merriken’s happy place. Frequent hikes in the magnificent terrain of the Rockies made her feel grounded. On this day, as she munched on trail mix and followed a path down the mountain, she thought about the path her own life had taken. Professionally, she hadn’t quite found her place in the world. She’d graduated from college a decade earlier and was determined to make a difference. But her job as a social worker with at-risk youth had taken its toll emotionally. Lara was contemplating going back to school to get an advanced degree in something health-related. And she hoped that spending a bit of time reflecting in nature would reveal the answer. Only she couldn’t stop thinking about her snack mix.
It may have been the recovering junk-food junkie inside her longing for a brownie, but Lara craved a bar made from healthy ingredients. She’d begun to make a connection between what she was putting in her body and how it made her feel—physically and mentally. It started with no sugar and no red meat, a rule enforced by her college volleyball coach. Without them, her head and skin became clearer. Then she cut out wheat after learning it was the cause of debilitating migraines. She was changing what she ate and it was having a dramatic impact on her health.
It was the early 2000s and there were lots of energy bars on the market, but they were chock-full of ingredients most health food enthusiasts couldn’t even pronounce. Lara envisioned a simpler snack bar—food made from food. When she realized nothing like it existed, she experimented in the kitchen and made her own. She mixed combinations of dried fruit, nuts and all-natural ingredients in her Cuisinart and formed them into bars with a rolling pin. She shared samples with friends and family who confirmed she was onto something.
She began working at Whole Foods to research the food industry. She took note of popular brands of cookies and snacks and what they had in common. She seized an opportunity with a buyer and shared a few of her samples—he said they were the most innovative product he’d tasted. He offered to sell them in the Whole Foods Denver stores when her business was fully operational and ready. Three years after that hike down the mountain in search of clarity, Lara officially launched LÄRABAR.
She started with five flavors: Apple Pie, Banana Cookie, Cashew Cookie, Cherry Pie, and Chocolate Coconut Chew. She also brought her vision for manufacturing the bars to life with what was essentially a large-scale food processor and rolling pin. And as market demand for healthy snacks increased, the company continued to grow. In 2008, Minnesota-based food manufacturer General Mills acquired LÄRABAR.
Though her original commitment was for one year, Lara continues to play a significant role more than a decade later, providing creative and strategic direction for the brand that still bears her name. She remains the face of LÄRABAR and values the relationship she and General Mills have built to bring her vision forward. Though the product line has grown, the snacks are kosher, non-GMO, gluten- and dairy-free—the same as they have been since day one. They’re made with only Fair Trade Certified ingredients.
LÄRABAR continues to give back to causes close to Lara’s heart and home. The company partners with grassroots organizations committed to food access like Denver Urban Gardens Grow, which she has been involved with for more than two decades. Lara loves that the brand has reached a level where it can have a positive impact not just on those who consume the products but is addressing bigger issues around food sustainability and security as well as health. Lara’s mantra: Health really is your greatest wealth.
To learn more about Lara’s business, visit LÄRABAR.com.
Photo: General Mills
About the author: Chris Olsen is a radio veteran turned communications consultant, educator and author of “Whyography: Building a Brand Fueled by Purpose.” Through her work as a consultant partnering with startups, Chris realized her WHY—to support women-owned businesses in confidently communicating their purpose and impact, setting them up for entrepreneurial success. She created My Founder Story as a platform for doing so.