I first spoke to Ree Dolnick, founder and CEO of Jeca Energy Bar Company, back in 2016. At the time, she was test marketing her artisanal nutrition cookies around Buffalo. 5 years later, Ree reached out again, to tell me about some of the incredible progress that she has made with her… artisanal nutrition bars?
It turns out that cookies was not the best angle for her business. Bars turned out to be much better. Why? Ree explained that while the “spices of the world” cookies tasted great… they didn’t taste like cookies, or what people expected cookies to taste like. “People have expectations that cookies are going to taste something like chocolate chips or something sweet,” she told me. “The cookies were not sweet. To people, they were too strange. Customers at the Horsefeathers Market liked them, but generally the bars did much better than the cookies.”
Ree’s journey in Buffalo, exploring the cookie and bar market, has turned out to be quite the adventure. “My company got recommended for doing the Accelerator Program at 43 North,” said Ree. “That’s where I was told that 6 SKUs (3 cookies and 3 bars) was too many – it was confusing, with too many messages. I needed to make a decision and take a deep dive. Around that time, people were regularly ordering the bars over the cookies, so I decided to leverage everything I had worked with on the cookies, and put it into the bars. We ended up launching with three vegan-friendly, globally-inspired flavors: coconut+curry, matcha+seeds, and almond+dates.
“Then we entered the 2018 Ignite Accelerator Pitch Contest, and we were one of the winners. It gave us a lot of confidence, even though we didn’t have any accounts – a few stores were beta testing the bars, like the East Aurora Co-op. We didn’t even have our commercial packaging yet. Buffalo was great though – the small businesses really helped.”
As Ree was working on getting her product line streamlined, and test marketed in local shops, she was also busy trying to land a couple of larger national accounts. Whole Foods ended up picking up the bars. So did Kroger Digital. It appeared that Ree was on her way.
“2019 was a great year for gaining traction,” explained Ree. “Then there was 2020, the year that we were hoping to move into a new production facility. But we all know what happened in 2020. It set us back a year, but also gave us time to regroup and raise funds. We knew that we wanted our production company here in Buffalo. We worked with Launch NY, which funded me in Early October. We signed a January 1 lease for an NFTA production facility at the airport – it’s a commercial food center, originally built as an employee cafeteria.”
The production space was one thing. The commercial grade equipment was another. Ree found that she could mainly access smaller equipment in the US, that still required the bars to be made by hand. The larger equipment would have cost millions. Retaining the services of a co-packer was out of the question due to limited quality control. She needed something in-between, and finally identified the equipment in Europe.”
The problem was that we wanted to be different than what was already on the market,” said Ree. “We looked in the US, but could not find what we needed. The fabricating company in Europe is now retrofitting the equipment to meet that specs for our exact process, and to meet the US FDA requirements. We’re anticipating that equipment will be getting here by the end of the month, which would allow us to be running full force by the end of February.”
Another problem that Ree faced was the packaging. She wanted to use 100% recycled wrappers that looked a certain way. “We wanted them to look different,” Ree told me. “We wanted them to stand out. The wrapper needs to be easy to open, torn off in one direction, so that people can eat them while driving or biking, with no mess, no crumble. Customers have told us that that is important. It looks like we have finally identified a packaging company in California that can help us get there – we’re currently negotiating on price.”
With the equipment on the way, and the packaging being smoothed out, it appears as if Ree is off to the races. And that’s good news for Buffalo – we’ve seen a number of small boutique foods companies bubble forth over the last couple of years, each producing unique products that are appealing to a new generation of foodies that are eating healthier, without sacrificing flavor. This is a welcome new image for the city – one that should surprise a lot of people who tend to think of Buffalo as the land of chicken wings. Not that that’s a bad image, it’s just nice to have some diversity when it comes to the foods that represent us.
Get connected: Jeca Artisanal Nutrition Bars