Monday, July 26, 2010

NFTE - Its Nifty

Jonathan Miller is the Founder and CEO of Element Bars. He is a foodie, tinkerer and blogger on Wednesdays.

Last week, I talked about building a homemade smoker. During the hot summer months, I recycle the terracotta pots into vegetable planters (their actual use) and my mini urban vegetable garden recently produced its first cucumber. I have heard some tall tales in fishing, but this cucumber was *honestly* humongous - over 14 inches long. . . and the taste and texture were spot-on (crispy, not bitter and not watery - a great summer treat). In my experience, if you take the time to make it yourself, it always tastes better. That's why I started Element Bars back in 2008 - why have some company tell you what you like in an energy bar when you can build your own custom energy bar.

As I reread last week's story of tinkering, I realized that good problem solving (which is at the heart of entrepreneurship) starts at a young age. Since there was no class on entrepreneurship at my high school, the groundwork was actually laid in my high school speech and debate program. In that class, I had to learn how to listen to an argument, understand the problem, break it down into its component parts, and then construct and defend my position.

Now there actually is a non-profit, The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), which is dedicated to teaching entrepreneurship in schools. I have volunteered at different NFTE events and have had the privilege of speaking at both the Business Building Boot camp and, just last week, at a NFTE teacher training session. Entrepreneurship can be a great platform for teaching and NFTE was actually just awarded the best math curriculum of 2010. What better way to learn math than applying it to real world businesses?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sob Story...It made me weak in the knees

Jonathan Kelley is a Vice President here at Element Bars. He enjoys Russian Literature, cooking and spending time with his new baby boy, Edgar.

Over almost as quickly as it began - my so called "marathon" training has hit a bit of a roadblock.

Two weekends ago, the training began ramping up. I ran 9 miles on Saturday, and followed it up with a set of 3-5-3 mile runs midweek. After that, my knees felt tired. They weren't sore like in the first few weeks, just tired and aching. I'm a sensible guy - this is my body telling me to slow it down. After all, I hadn't really run since high school. As of this past weekend weekend, I'm officially calling it marathon for me this year...better luck next year, as they say.

[Cue the miniature violins] The original plan to run a marathon was a bit of a pipe dream. I hadn't run much in the last ten years or so. My overall endurance was subpar. I was winded after a mile, my legs were wimpy, you know the rest. The first few weeks proceeded surprisingly well. I could run further each week, my endurance made it easier, my experimental endurance fuel tasted better, all according to the Hal Higdon plan....until it wasn't.

I started noticing a strange tired feeling in my knees. The kind of feeling that turns into injury if you press it. It's a bit like taking that last ski run at 4:00 as the lifts close and going full speed. When your body is exhausted beyond its normal capabilities, injury is waiting around the corner. Rather than push for some arbitrary goal in my first season of running, I'm slowing it down. The repetitive impact of running must be one of the primary culprits, so I'm taking up some bicycle riding as an alternative. Where I would run 5-7 miles, I'll bike 10-15. The lessened impact makes a world of difference, and if I really press myself, my body gets a comparable workout. So I guess I'm a biathlete now - not planning to start swimming anytime soon.

The best part of this journey - I really caught the bug. I am energized by a morning run like nothing else. I don't even think I'd bristle if you called me a runner now. Endurance training is an aspect of life I hadn't explored since high school athletics, and I've missed it.

So, until next time - I'll be cross training for a half marathon on my Huffy 18 speed and on foot, working on finding those elusive leg muscles, and maybe playing a game or two of Contra.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Words of Wedding Advice

Tom is the Director of Communications at Element Bars. He blogs on Mondays, is getting married on Saturday and asks that you bear with him in this post because he does have a point.

I am getting married this weekend. I can't wait, I have loved being engaged to my fiance but once I am married, I won't be engaged and if I am not engaged the awkward exchanges of engagement will stop. Here is one such awkward exchange depicted in my upcoming bio-picture Moments of Engagement:

TOM is meeting a group of adults he casually knows.Lots of small talk OLDER MAN HE KIND OF KNOWS corners him.ZOOM IN

I hear, you're getting married.

Hand drifts to TOM'S shoulder. TOM feels uncomfortable but an air of coolness still permeates him, think a Clooney/Newman hybrid but suaver, more handsome and with a much bigger nose.
Yes I am, it's exciting.

TOM backs away nervously smiling
OLDER MAN (loud to get attention of all around)
Can I give you two words of wisdom the only words you will ever need to know . . .
OLDER MAN pauses this is not a question.
Yes Dear!!!!
OLDER MAN cackles with laughter, other old men join him. TOM looks around for an emergency exit or duct tape. . . .

The movie is behind schedule due to casting difficulties. We are having problems finding anyone elegant enough to play my future mother-in-law, eloquent enough to play my own mother and we've given up on trying to find anyone who captures my eye like my fiance does.

But I write this because I want to give all future grooms two words of wisdom for their upcoming nuptials . . . Element Bars. I am serious. I have ordered bars for my wedding to give the guests snacks for their party favor bags, for the ride from the ceremony to the reception or for a post wedding snack. It's something my fiance and her mother don't have to worry about because they have more than enough on their plates. I was able to pick the ingredients and customize the name. I am not going to give away what I named the bars, but "I can't believe she said yes" and "I now pronounce you no longer hungry" were two names in the running.

So, future grooms, I can't provide you with much advice other than to find your soul-mate, the one person in the world that you are supposed to spend your life with. . . . and then order a bunch of Element Bars for the wedding so that person doesn't have to.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Creative Energy Bar Names

Chris is our Manager of Baking Operations responsible for the fresh baked bars that come out of our bakery. Up until now, he shared his thoughts with our ingredients, but thanks to the blog he will share his thoughts with us every Thursday.

I’ve seen a bar name in my day. One of the most loved features of Element Bars is that you can come up with a special name for your personally designed treat. We have a lot of fun learning what our customers like naming their bars too! I can tell you from first hand experience, Element Bars is lucky to have some very creative customers. A lot of inside jokes, a lot of well-wishers, and one or two that are beyond this humble baker’s comprehension. For example, one such individual decided that only “Cam’s Hot Sweetness” would accurately name their bar. Maybe it’s the summer Chicago heat coupled with working around hot ovens all day. If I were naming my bar this afternoon, it would be “Chris’ chilled crispy”.

Being a Bulldog

Leslie is an intern here at Element Bars. She is helping to bake and create a new line of Energy Bars. She has brought fresh ideas and willingly volunteers to do anything asked, like today's blog post. . . .

Leslie here- Element Bars summer intern by day; by night. . .I am asleep exhausted from Bulldog Bootcamp. You might be thinking “Can teaching your puppy to sit, roll over and not chew your brand new shoes be that tiring?” If you had that thought you would be mistaken, because Bulldog Bootcamp is not obedience school- it’s a workout class that takes place at 6AM in Chicago’s Grant Park. I had walked by these classes before on my way to work and thought “those people are nuts! you couldn’t pay me to do that” well last week Groupon ran a $40 deal for a month of classes and I paid to do that.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I pull myself from bed at 5:30. I'll take you through my workout today to give you a sense of what it is like to be a Bulldog. I ran out the door with a Cherry Charge in hand. It was a gorgeous morning-the air was fresh, the sky was perfectly clear and the sun was casting a red glow on the buildings. I don't usually eat much in the morning, but I knew I needed to get some quality food in me to power this tough love work out I was facing. The Cherry Charge was just the thing-tasty and full of good stuff. As the crowd gathered, we all just kind of looked at each other and sizing one another up gauging whether or not each person would make it through the next hour.

Our instructor was a sweet girl who tried her best to be a drill sergant-more endearing than intimidating. We started out in two lines, jogging around the park. I passed a few people, a few people passed me, so I felt I was in a good spot - the middle of the pack.What followed was perhaps the most challenging part of the morning, the count-off. While stretching we had to count off by threes. It sounds so easy, but it took people a long time to figure out that this meant counting to 3, in order. That you didn't get to just choose a number. My personal favorite was the girl who yelled "4!". If only she had had an Element Bar, her brain would have been functioning and she would have saved herself so much embarrassment. I managed to say “two” after the person before me said “one”—it was pretty impressive.

As the workout went on, cycling through stations of dips, jumps, lunges and running, I really felt spurred on by my energy bar- we were like a team! This might be part nutrition based, but just mentally knowing that I had put nutritious food in my body helped me power through those last muscle burning sets. Well off to bed so I can workout tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Food Tinkerer

I’ve always been a tinkerer. When I was 10, my dad bought me my first wrench set and not being a tinkerer himself enrolled his 4th grade son in his first ever college class--Small Gasoline Engine Repair (i.e. lawn mowers). I vividly remember sitting in the parking lot of the hardware store looking at the bolts on the car door and then looking down at my wrench set smiling. My dad smiled back, caught himself encouraging his tinkering son and then sternly said: "I better not find this car door on the garage floor when I get home".

Food is one of my lifelong passions. Naturally, passions collide and I have applied tinkering to food in recent years. What I have learned in my tinkering is you shouldn't mess with the ingredients too much or else food ceases to be food and becomes . . a Twinkie. But that doesn't mean I can't tinker with the devices that make food. Last year, I decided to build by own smoker after being inspired by an episode of Alton Brown’s Good Eats. I went out and bought two terra cotta pots, a dorm room stove (hot plate) and some wood chips. The first thing I realized was that the stove had an auto-shutoff if it gets too hot (which a wise tinkerer probably installed to prevent dorm room fires). As I sat tinkering with the stove's safety device in what I refer to as my "workspace", my wife nearly ran me over pulling her car into what she refers to as the "garage". After nearly killing me, she got scolded me for almost killing myself via electrocution. I reassured her by simply explaining I had electrocuted myself many times before and lived to tell the tale.

A few clipped wires and a dimmer switch later, voila! a working smoker that has since churned out some amazing smoked white fish and pork loin.

As a tinkerer, I am always innovating. Next week – what are the terra cotta pots being used for now. Any guesses?

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Bars Don't Box Themselves

There are days here at Element Bars that I call All Hands on Deck days. All Hands on Deck days happen at every start-up I have ever worked; at Element Bars on a All Hands on Deck day all able bodies need to report to the bakery to help box and ship the bars. It's a great sign for the company because it means we have lots of orders to fill but when we're rushing to meet the 5pm parcel pick up it can get pretty hectic. . . . .

"GET OVER HERE NOW! WE HAVE MORE BARS THAN WE KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH! I CAN'T EVEN FIND CHRIS THE BAKER IN THIS MASS OF ALL-NATURAL TASTINESS" Is how I wish Jonathan (founder of Element Bars) called us over to the bakery. But, he is always polite and composed like he was last Friday . . . .

"Hey Tom, if you aren't too busy do you think you could come on over to the bakery and help us box up some of these bars so we can ship them out? It shouldn't take too long." I calmly answered yes but upon hanging up the phone frantically grabbed my hairnet and took off out of the office screaming "OUT OF MY WAY I HAVE TO GET TO THE BAKERY."
Boxing bars and taping them shut is a humbling experience. . . for me and I start each day with an extremely low self esteem. My hands are clammy in the midst of a driving blizzard and putting me in a hot bakery only makes things worse. For those of you picturing Lucile Ball on the chocolate production line, stop. Even in the most frenetic situations, we never eat bars, as a matter of fact, every bar is already sealed and in a box. It's my sealing it that gets frantic: tape sticks to my hands, sweat pours from my brow and inappropriate language escapes my mouth.

On Friday, as always, all the bars were boxed and shipped to the right addresses. But I wanted to write this, because All Hands on Deck days are what make small companies exciting. Here at Element Bars, the Marketing Director, CEO and VP of New Product Development all are all great at their jobs . . . . and great with a tape gun.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

From the Bakery: Experimenting with Coffee that doesn't Spill

Hello World Wide Web,
I’m Chris and I handle most of the baking at Element Bars World Head Quarters. When I’m not up to my elbows in apple-juice-sweetened-cherries, I’m helping answer customer emails and experimenting with new ingredients. I’ll be giving you a peek inside EB and sharing some of the challenges and adventures we encounter in our business.

My job is to provide customers with the all-natural, healthy ingredients they want in a bar that tastes great. Incorporating all three of these criteria in a 2-3 ounce bar is not always easy as my recent effort to introduce caffeine to our Element Endurance bars shows. There were a lot of trials, experimentation, confusion and I was ultimately left scratching my hairnet. While including the caffeine equivalent of a cup of coffee in each bar might sound appealing (especially if you’re like me and spill your coffee fairly regularly), I quickly found out that it tastes like toxic waste. So for now back to the drawing board and when I get it right, it will be on the Build-a-Bar screen!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Molecular Customization

Last month I was out in San Francisco to attend my brother's defense of his dissertation in Molecular Biology as the culmination of his doctorate program. Our casual reading does not often overlap but I wanted to share with you this article that he sent me yesterday. It says that gestational diabetes is potentially controlled by the amount of serotonin produced by pregnant women. My brother explained to me "when we know the pathway of the cause (gestational diabetes), hopefully we can intervene with [customized] small molecule therapeutics". The article finds that changes in the right kind of dietary proteins are the small molecule therapeutics that could reduce the likelihood of gestational diabetes.

Normally this would just be a bit of scientific trivia, by like 1 in 10 pregnant woman, my wife, Jennie, was diagnosed with gestational diabetes during her 6th month of pregnancy with our daughter, Sydney (happy, both Jennie and Sydney are fine now).

I mention this to give background as to why this article was so interesting to me. Something that affected my family directly might be prevented by a field I work in and is supported by the type of research my brother does. As more research surfaces on this disease and others in the future I hope that Element Bars can help create customized items to help those afflicted.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

In My Element--Finding a Parking Spot

The beginning of relationships can be awkward: freshman year roommates, blind dates, bloggers.

To avoid “boy is it ever (insert weather observation) out there” or “of all the cheeses on that platter over there, which is your favorite?” I have a collection of ice breakers I use.

Being new to the blog and wanting to share my element with you I thought I would use the best of my ice breakers: “What do you do better than anyone you know?”

Not sure? I'll give you some examples: my brother is the better than anyone he knows at catching things he accidentally drops (cell phone, keys and Jonathan Kelley at Element Bars is better at Nintendo’s “Contra” than anyone he knows. I am better at parallel parking than anyone I know.

By parallel parking I do not mean maneuvering between orange cones in the blog parking lot. My parallel parking skills are at their best in urban settings when parking spot demand outweighs supply and there is inconsistent spot turnover. In these situation you need horn deafness, know how to carnival, ability to spot the spot, ride the rear and embrace the yellow.
When I get the opportunity to use these skills I am in my element.

Spotting the spot- My eyes are open for sudden movements of cars and gradual movements of people. Here are some particulars I look for:
• Brake lights of parked cars (a sign that the car has been turned on or is backing up).
• People leaving work tend to say good-bye to coworkers with keys in hand.
• People with lots of groceries or shopping bag that need to get to the car to unload cargo.
• Illegal spots near fire hydrants at the beginning of the block where I stalk like a Lion on the Sahara listening to sports talk radio.
Riding the rear- When a fellow competitor is trying to get into a spot that either is difficult or too small I move in right behind them. I DO NOT HONK, the competitors behind me will do that. When the horns sound, I make eye-contact shrug my shoulders and mouth the words “I’m sorry” at the flustered parker.

Embracing the yellow-If I have driven around for a while and can’t find anything. I take the pole position instead of racing through the yellow. When the light goes green I dictate the pace at which the pack goes around the block. Perhaps something will open up or I’ll spot someone trying to get into a car.

Horn deafness- Embracing the yellow, setting a slow pace and trying to get into a tight space tends to anger people in the form of honking.. . . or so I’ve been told. I don’t hear horns.
Carnival-ing- Once I have found a spot a few inches bigger than my car or more, I find a way to get my car into that spot. Even if it means hitting a bumper or two. . .several times. Like bumper cars at a carnival I figure out a way to get my car into the spot no matter the contact it takes.
Is the ice broken?
I could write many more words about the skills in bold up above--but in order to break the ice I need to hear what you are better at than anyone you know. For my Thursday post I will continue the conversation with more about my element, your element and the intricacies of parallel parking.

Friday, July 2, 2010

What's Your Element?

Productivity dips hours before a holiday weekend because minds are where bodies are soon to be—in their element. At Element Bars we love hearing about what you do when you are in in your element. What makes you tick? What do you do and who are you with when you are your happiest? Are you in the bleachers at Wrigley, a tent in Yosemite or a picnic in the backyard? Share your post with us and have a happy 4th of July

The author in his element: needing a haircut playing touch football on the beach