run, romp, refuel, repeat
for three innovators in oregon's local food community, this routine dictates life's ebb and flow.
Words by Cameron Kokes & Photos by Will Saunders
Jesse Thomas, Co-Founder
Picky Bars, Bend
Endurance athletes are no strangers to endless spreads of energy bars at grocery stores and running shops. But for champion triathlete, Jesse Thomas, none of these chalky-tasting laboratory experiments could do him or his body justice. The problem: fake, artificial, and processed ingredients. In 2010, he partnered with his wife and another athlete to craft an easily-digestible bar that sustained his body for hours.
What initially triggered the urge to enter the energy bar business?
After I finished my MBA, I started to train with the idea that I was going to compete at a professional level in triathlons, exercising a whole bunch and eating 5,000 to 6,000 calories per day. But I was having a bunch of stomach issues. My wife, Lauren Fleshman, who is a professional distance runner, decided to create an energy bar that would solve my stomach issues: a gluten and dairy-free bar that used real food ingredients. She and her friend Steph Bruce, another professional distance runner, started making stuff in the kitchen and came up with what we now call a Picky Bar. I got involved to help them establish the basics of the business, but it wasn’t a business when we started, we were just doing it for fun. I think that’s one of the things that have made it what it’s become.
History behind the name?
It’s really basic. We are all so picky about the ingredients and we’re all such picky eaters. We wanted a natural, sports performance bar that also tasted good without gluten, dairy, or any of the difficult allergens. Picky bars for picky eaters is how it was born, and we just thought it sounded fun.
What’s the best time of day for a Picky Bar?
So there are two great purposes for a Picky Bar. Anything in and around exercise because it has a balanced 4:1 carbs-to-protein ratio and easily digestible fats. But it’s also a super fulfilling snack between meals. It’s sweet enough that it tastes good, but it’s not so sugary. You don’t feel like you need to eat 12 of them and it doesn’t create a craving.
How do you select ingredient suppliers?
We start with the question: “What’s your ideal?” It’s high-quality, it’s local, it’s organic. Then we ask how realistic that is given what resources are available and what price we have to pay. It’s a constant balancing act. It’s about local, organic, and high-quality ingredients. When that doesn’t all match up, we have to widen our reach and look elsewhere.
What’s your favorite outdoor place in the state of Oregon?
The Deschutes River trail. I grew up in Bend running the trails here and that just feels like home to me; I mean it is home to me in a number of different ways, not only physically but spiritually.
You’re an accomplished triathlete. What are you still chasing?
My plan for the next few years—probably the remainder of my career—would be to race the Ironman World Championships in Kona. I’d like to win the hardest races in the world. I don’t necessarily mean “most competitive,” just the coolest, craziest courses. The sport is as much about adventure as it is about competing, and I’d love to go find the coolest adventures that exist in racing and go try to win those races and build my career as somebody who’s gone out, taken on those challenges, and done well.
Eric Shen, Co-Founder
Bite Fuel, Oregon City
Efficiency speaks in numbers. Eric Shen’s numbers spoke for themselves when he worked as a salesman for a milk company. He set his sales targets high, obliterated his marks, and saw his commissions rise even higher. But Eric isn’t the type to rest on his laurels, so he funneled his work ethic into his passion for personal health. He and his wife, Isabel, began testing recipes they hoped would pack the same punch of efficiency and functionality that they threw into their 4:00 AM gym sessions. Out of this effort, Bite Fuel was born.
What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed in day-to-day life since becoming a small business owner after working as a salesman?
Throughout my whole background in sales, knocking on doors, making those calls, the biggest thing was that I was always trying to please my boss. He would always give me these numbers, and I would hit them, and obviously in sales when you sell more your commission checks are bigger, but in the end I didn’t see anything I could do to help the company beyond the sale. I had all these ideas about how to grow the company and pursue different channels, but my voice was never heard. When I started my own thing, everything was just me. I get to make those decisions. I don’t have to ask anybody. I still do the sales, but it just feels more complete.
Considering Bite Fuel is meant to accompany some serious business in the gym, what’s your favorite thing to do at the gym?
Circuit training. I like to do all muscles, but very fast. Set-to-set, rep-to-rep, and get everything done in 30 minutes. I get that done, and then get to work.
What makes a food functional?
Functional basically means that when you eat a food, that food is going to do something for you. It’s going to work for you. For instance, protein, that’s a very functional ingredient because when you eat protein it’s helping you build muscle, it’s good for your skin, it’s helping you lose weight.
You and co-founder/wife Isabel wake up at 4:00 a.m. to get to the gym before work. What’s the motivation behind that strategy?
The best thing about going at 4:00 a.m. is that there’s no one at the gym, so it’s like your own playground. It really gives you that kick of energy when you are at work. We feel pumped up. We got the sweat out of our system already, and we know after work we can just go to sleep rather than doing some crazy physical activity.
When and how does your product fit into your own daily life?
Every morning when I wake up, I do a bowl of almond milk with one of our protein granolas. After every gym session, I share a bag of our protein cookies between me and my wife.
What’s the most common mistake you see people make in their eating choices?
A lot of people go to the grocery store hungry. When you do that, you see good packaging and you pick with your stomach. You’re not really thinking. It’s your stomach and your eyes. That’s it. That’s why my wife and I always go on a full stomach. At Costco, we can walk around and say no to the samples. It just makes for better decisions.
erika Welsh, co-founder
Wild Friends, Portland
What’s a driven young athlete to do when a hectic college workload yields leaning towers of peanut butter empties all over her countertops? Make peanut butter from scratch, of course. At least for Erika Welsh and her then-college roommate, Keeley Tillotson, this was the logical course of action. Their story began in an apartment kitchen near the University of Oregon, and continues to spread smoothly across the country, taking tongues by storm with nut butters that redefine delicious.
What was it that initially inspired you to start experimenting with your own peanut butter?
Keeley and I were busy students and athletes so peanut butter was our go-to meal and snack. We ate it with everything. One day we ran out of peanut butter and decided to experiment with the food processor that I had just gotten for Christmas. Keeley had bookmarked a “How to Make Your Own Peanut Butter,” recipe online and we saw it as the perfect opportunity. We just started blending up peanuts and salt and that’s how it all began! We were basking in the love of peanut butter.
Where does the flavor-creation process begin and how does it evolve?
The research and development process is the most fun and seems to come naturally for us. The first day we started making peanut butter, we decided, “Let’s add ingredients that sound good with peanut butter and that we eat with peanut butter, but that we’ve never seen combined in a peanut butter jar.” In the beginning it was just what sounded good to us. Now, we have a large distribution so our product ideas and launches are much more calculated.
Is exercise a big part of life amid the demands of business?
Yes, definitely. We both grew up playing on various sports teams and that transferred to college. We both belong to gyms, do yoga, run, hike, and do circuits. So staying active is really important to us. In balancing the stress and chaotic demands of running a business, exercise has really helped us stay sane.
What do each you and Keeley bring to the table?
Keeley is a math and spreadsheet wiz with a very analytical brain. I much prefer to deal with the people on the product side of our business. It’s easy to divide and conquer. I think the relationship that we have—from best friends to business partners—is the strongest factor in maintaining and growing Wild Friends. I can’t imagine being excited or motivated to run a business with anyone else at this point.
Best flavor combination?
Recently, I discovered this combination: putting our Classic Almond Butter on pear slices. Some people think it sounds weird but it’s really good. You’ve got the sweetness of the pear and the salty, creaminess of the almond butter. That has been a new favorite of mine.