Colorado’s LÄRABAR Founder Talks Food, Health and Entrepreneurship
Little did Lara Merriken know that a Cuisinart, a rolling pin and some bags of fruits and nuts, mixed in with some curiosity and “grit” would turn her idea into a multimillion-dollar business. Merriken is the founder of LÄRABAR — the energy bar that was born in a lightbulb moment on a hike in the Rocky Mountains. Minimally processed and made from just a few ingredients, her bars took the market by storm when they were introduced in 2003. Fifteen years later, the company, now owned by General Mills, with Merriken still involved, is going strong.
In this one-on-one with Merriken, the Colorado athlete turned social worker turned food entrepreneur talks to Colorado Health & Wellness about her journey and how her health, food, and giving back motivate and keep her on point.
Tell us about your ties to Colorado.
I was born in California and grew up in Denver in the Congress Park area. I went to Kent Denver for high school. Although I left a few times, I’ve always come back because Denver is such a great place to live.
When did you become so health conscious?
I was a walk-on volleyball player at the University of Southern California, and I played Division I volleyball. My coach had a rule of no sugar and no red meat. That experience at 18 was real education about healthy eating. He did it for performance purposes. I realized I felt better and it began my journey to healthier living and healthier eating. That was where the seed got planted.
You’ve spoken publicly about your wheat allergy. How did it change you?
In my early 20s, I was getting migraines all the time and I found out I was really allergic to wheat. In the early 90s it was tough but I felt so much better not having it in my diet that I was really motivated to keep it out. I learned about foods that are now normal — like quinoa, kale and chard. I had a very specific diet at the time and I had to cook my own foods and stop eating out. I really wasn’t someone who liked to cook very much but I learned to do it.
How did food and nutrition change your career path?
I got so passionate about natural foods that I really wanted to do something in the field. My degree from USC was in psychology. Ironically, I started out as a business major. I stopped because I didn’t like the finance classes. Then, I ended up as a psychology major and I worked as a social worker with at-risk kids; that was my first career. All the kids would always tease me and say, “You eat the weirdest food Lara.” Around my 30th birthday, I wanted to take a leap of faith and go back to school; I thought I’d get into naturopathic medicine, acupuncture and nutrition. I got accepted into a program in Seattle and was three months away from moving there. Then, on a hike, the idea for LÄRABAR came. It was an inspiration and I decided to follow it.
Tell us more about that inspiration.
I came up with the idea on Memorial Day weekend in 2000 on a hike. I thought to myself: Why hasn’t someone made something really clean and healthy that tastes delicious and indulgent, like my junk food past like cherry pie, apple pie? So, I started blending concoctions like fruit and nuts in my Cuisinart at home, rolling them out and test marketing with my friends. That’s how I made the transition and I just jumped into it.
How did you get your bars into stores?
While I was toiling on recipes in my kitchen, I got a job at Whole Foods opening their store in Cherry Creek so I could be around the business and so I could figure out how to make my plan work. I spent three years working there, then one day a key buyer from Austin was in the store. I seized the opportunity and talked to him. I ran home to get my samples that were in a salad bar takeout box. It didn’t look like anything official but he tried them and told me it was one of the most innovative products he tried in a long time and he offered for me to bring them into the Colorado stores when I was ready. That was sure motivation for me. Fast forward nine months, I met the Natural Grocers’ marketing person at a bike event where I was sampling my product. In 2003, when I was ready, I launched at both stores within the same week.
What were LÄRABAR’s first flavors on the market?
Cashew Cookie, Cherry Pie, Apple Pie, Banana Cookie, and Chocolate Coconut Chew were my first five flavors and they are still available today.
A lot of LÄRABAR flavors use dates, why?
I realized early on dates were kind of magical. They are a fruit full of fiber and good things. They kept the bar together and created a lovely sweetness and great balance for flavors like tart cherries in Cherry Pie.
What is the LÄRABAR philosophy? If it has one?
We want to offer great healthy options for people. Personally, I wanted to do something to make the world a better place. This is my way of doing that. I can’t solve all the world’s problems but I can contribute in a positive way. That was my vision. That, and to make something anybody would love, not just the extreme health food consumer. I wanted it to be fun, approachable, enjoyable, delicious, satisfying — something that a mainstream consumer would say, “Wow, this is great.”
What’s your role in the company now that Small Planet Foods division of General Mills acquired the company in 2008?
I am the founder and creative director advising on strategy and vision of the brand. I’m also still the face of the brand. When I sold to them I didn’t know 10 years later I’d still be working with them since I only had a commitment for a year. General Mills valued and understood what I was about and it’s been a really positive relationship.
How has LÄRABAR evolved over the years?
It started as fruit and nuts bars; then we added nuts and seeds, which are crunchy and chewy bars; and recently we’ve added fruit and greens bars, which are lighter and inspired by smoothies. People want variety, different tastes and textures, experiences. We want to offer that to them.
Are you still involved in creating flavors?
I have my hand in it very loosely. There’s a team who does that now but I give them my feedback.
What’s something you did for yourself after selling the company?
I went to culinary school in Los Angeles after I sold LÄRABAR. I also took professional chef and professional baking programs and later a plant-based course and learned bread baking with spelt and gluten-free flowers. I am still very passionate about food so I cook for fun. I have a culinary group and we cook cuisine from around the world.
What are you doing for your physical health these days?
I play a lot of tennis and high intensity strength train, which includes boxing. I also love to hike when possible. I got into tennis a few years ago and I love it. I like the intensity of being an adult, not knowing what you’re doing, and learning. I think it’s good for the brain and it’s active. That’s one of my big passions.
Tell us about your involvement with Denver Urban Gardens?
I’ve had a relationship with them for over 20 years: When I was a social worker I started a community garden at Gray Street and now I’m on their board. Obviously, I’m passionate about food — healthy food — and access to it. Teaching people how to garden and grow their own food is very empowering. I believe in the organization and it’s a natural fit for LÄRABAR to be involved with DUG, supporting the city where its roots are.
What’s your favorite LÄRABAR?
My all-time favorite is Cashew Cookie and my second favorite is Cherry Pie.
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