We recently caught up with Gary Erickson, founder and owner of Clif Bar & Company, and – what a surprise – Gary and his nutritious bars have a Greek story to tell.
Although with a last name like Erickson it’s hard to imagine that Gary would be a Greek-American, the story behind the Clif bar started in his Greek grandmother’s kitchen. Gary’s grandmother, Kaliopi, was the one that inspired him as a kid to be a healthy food advocate and know how to eat well.
“We used to eat everything fresh and organic. My grandma taught me a healthy lifestyle and this is what I implemented in my business,” tells us the Clif bar’s inventor and author of the highly praised book Raising the Bar.
“I remember she used to open the phyllo dough from scratch and we would be together and I would help her in the kitchen. She really made me think of eating healthy. The Mediterranean diet, which is based on organic ingredients. is a great start.”
“This was the reason that made me name our first bakery, Kali, after my grandmother, Kaliopi. She was a great cook and always prepared healthy meals. She really made some amazing Greek foods and one of my favorites was her spanakopita (spinach pie).”
But how did he come up with the first Clif bar no longer only loved by cyclists, but also by millions around the world.
“In 1990 I was on a one-day, 175-mile bicycle ride. As usual, I packed six energy bars for the ride—using the only bar on the market at the time. Halfway through the ride I had eaten five of them and I could not eat my last one. It seemed hard-to-digest and not very healthy.”
Then and there, in a moment Gary now calls “the epiphany,” he conceived the idea of a better, healthy and nutritious bar which, today, is widely known as the Clif Bar. He named it after his father, Clifford, the man who introduced him to wilderness
adventures and encouraged him to follow his passions in life.
“I started thinking that something healthier could be made, a better tasting bar made with nutritious, wholesome ingredients to sustain energy.”
And then he went to the best baker he knew – his mother and “we started playing around with the idea and finally came up with the recipe for the Clif bars.”
An instant hit with cyclists and climbers, Clif Bar was formally launched in 1992, distributed first by bike shops, outdoor stores and natural food retailers and has since expanded to include grocery stores, convenience stores and other retail outlets nationwide.
In the late 1990s, the energy bar market experienced rapid growth and consolidation. As huge, multinational food companies began to acquire Clif Bar’s competitors, Gary and his wife, Kit Crawford, were under pressure to sell their business. In 2001, they made the brave decision to keep Clif Bar independent, allowing them to develop an innovative business model guided by five aspirations: sustaining its business, brands, people, community and the planet.
In 2010, Clif Bar & Company Inc implemented an employee stock ownership plan, whereby employees acquired 20% of the company, the other 80% still owned by Gary and his wife.
Supporting its employees’ work-life balance, Clif Bar provides employees with an onsite fitness center, personal trainers and concierge services such as haircuts and organic produce delivery. Employees can also opt for a flexible workweek and are encouraged to participate in volunteer opportunities during the workday. They also enjoy a sabbatical program, sustainability benefits, and onsite childcare.
Gary is also very passionate about his Greek roots.
“Of course I cherish my Greek heritage and I have been to Greece many times, around the Peloponnese and the Greek islands, of course. I love the country.”
“For now we do not have plans to go to a different product category, we want to stay in what we know to do best and this is making healthy and tasty bars but our plans include expanding our distribution.”
“We recently started selling in Europe and we hope to be able to distribute our products in Greece soon,” concludes the businessman, author, passionate cyclist, and environmental activist.