She sets the bar high
Popular adventure product has a dual mission — furnish clean energy and get people out into God’s creation
Colleen Dyck got a call one day from a retailer: “Did you just pay three people to come into our store and urge us to sell your bars?”
It’s a business owner’s dream — to have customers help with marketing.
That’s what has happened in the four years since Dyck started manufacturing GORP Clean Energy Bars.
“Our customers spread the word for us,” she says. “The way we’ve been able to get into major chains is because of our customers. They get us into everything. It’s been such a blessing, and even sort of surreal.”
People have sent her photos of themselves consuming GORP bars on mountaintops or out in canoes with their kids.
“Having passionate customers is good, because I’m a really bad salesperson,” she says. “I’d rather be at home creating.”
Or maybe running.
If Dyck hadn’t been an athlete, GORP bars might not exist.
In 2005 she was doing triathlon training (swim, bike, run). She’d put the kids in daycare then go to the pool three days a week. On the way back to her rural home, 40 minutes away, she’d often hit the drive-thru.
“I realized, this is so ridiculous,” she recalls. “But you’re hungry after training, and getting sustenance helps you recover faster.”
She switched to eating energy bars but wasn’t completely happy with what was available. Most contained corn syrup and other ingredients she didn’t want to eat or feed to her family. She decided to create her own source of clean calories.
“I started researching and came up with this recipe, just for myself. I’d bring my homemade product to run and swim practices and pretty soon my fellow training mates, my friends and family, started demanding that I make some for them.”
The logical next step was to start a business.
That wasn’t a huge stretch as she was no stranger to the world of commerce. She and her husband, Grant, operate a large grain and oilseeds farm (corn, beans, soybeans, sunflowers, flax, canola) near Niverville, Manitoba. She’d grown up in a business home: her father was a wholesale Christian book distributor, and she had studied entrepreneurship at Red River Community College in Winnipeg. Business ran in her genes.
“I’d always been wired that way. I always knew I would start a business of some kind someday, but I had no idea it would be in food,” she says. “I had no experience in culinary science. I had no background in anything but eating.”
She embarked on a new learning curve of research and development.
Dyck consulted with the Canadian government Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, as she refined her recipe and tested shelf-life.
“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” she says. “I had to learn all about water activity and mold count. We didn’t want to add preservatives, so we had to reformulate a couple of times to get the perfect ratio that would last.”
She began producing bars in three flavors: Cocoa, hemp & almond; Peanut butter & apple; and Peanut butter & raspberry. She chose a name familiar to outdoorsy folk — GORP (an acronym for Good Old Raisins and Peanuts).
The bars are produced in a fully equipped commercial kitchen in the basement of the Dycks’ farm home. Employees prepare the mixture and roll it out with old-fashioned rolling pins. It’s an arduous process, but ensures the texture Dyck wants. They run two production days a week, making between 2,800 and 5,000 bars.
Dyck employs a staff of 10, not all full-time. Some on the production crew work on an as-needed basis, depending on orders.
A self-described “health nut and tree hugger,” Dyck sources her ingredients locally, using Manitoba-grown oats, sunflower seeds, pea fibre, hemp and flax. The honey comes from bees that pollinate the canola fields around their farm. Some ingredients, like sprouted brown rice protein, cocoa and nuts, are sourced elsewhere. No artificial sugars, preservatives or colors are used.
Early encouragement was strong. In 2009, even before she was formally under way, Dyck’s product won top prize at the Great Manitoba Food Fight, a business development forum. That gave her the confidence to keep going.
Then in 2015 she was shocked to be chosen “company of the year” by the Manitoba Food Processors Association.
“When I got the e-mail, I had to read it 10 times,” Dyck says. Coming from peers, the honor was “huge.”
“These people are in the food industry in Manitoba, they know what it’s like, they know what the climate’s like.”
Dyck knows that 90% of food companies fail in their first five years.
“I have one more year,” she says.
She’ll feel more comfortable when annual sales reach a million dollars. “We’re close. This year I’ll get there.”
GORP bars are sold in 600 Canadian locations, including grocery and health food stores, gyms and gas stations. Landing a deal with Mountain Equipment Co-op, a leading Canadian outfitter, was “a really big, big, big deal for us.”
Dyck’s product has been sold by mail order throughout the U.S. for some time, but only this spring did she land her first retail account in the U.S.
She acknowledges lurches and challenges along the way, such as learning to be a leader and dealing with things like handling disagreements. Maintaining a positive culture while meeting production targets is “a natural part of running a business but takes way more time than I thought.”
As all business owners know, erratic markets can be a challenge.
“Sometimes you get amazing sales in a year, then you don’t. You’re prepped for growth and it didn’t happen, and you have to figure out how to cash-flow your way out of it.”
But there are also serendipitous “Aha” moments, like an unsolicited testimonial from NHL hockey player Zach Bogosian.
Dyck had donated GORP bars to a local marathon for mental health and because of this the bars got passed along into the hands of the Winnipeg Jets and they have been buying them ever since.
Bogosian, now with the Buffalo Sabres, gave the following testimonial: “I eat GORP bars before and during games to help fuel my body. They taste great, are all-natural, and don’t leave me with a typical energy bar aftertaste.”
Then the Toronto Maple Leafs began to order GORP bars.
“Those are some really nice accounts that give you street cred,” Dyck says.
“The athletes kept saying how well the bars sat in their stomachs. At first I laughed it off, but then I was told not to discount that feature. If they can eat it and then go out and play and not cramp up, it’s a huge deal for them. They put out a lot of calories when they’re on the ice and if they can’t replenish them carefully, it affects their game.”
Dyck explains that the bars’ highquality sprouted brown rice protein doesn’t produce bloating or gas upsets, as can be the case with cheaper ingredients.
“Of course, that makes the bars more expensive,” she says. “But I’m glad I stuck to my guns when people told me to make it cheaper. ‘It’s too expensive,’ they said. ‘Nobody will buy it’.”
Cutting corners is not Dyck’s style.
“We don’t just sprinkle in the flax and hemp,” she says. “You’re getting functional amounts of the good ingredients, a full teaspoon of ground flax, two teaspoons of raw hemp, 11 grams of protein, 6 grams of fibre, a full gram of Omega 3. The quality is there. You can feel it when you eat it.”
Dyck wants to get out of her crowded basement to a standalone building on the farmyard, but “the numbers aren’t there yet.”
She is close to bringing out a fourth energy bar flavor (ginger-apple-pecan) and plans a special “Canadian bar” (possibly with Canadian ingredients like maple and blueberry) to honor the country’s 150th birthday this year.
But she also envisions a complete line of energy foods to help keep on-the-go people healthy.
One emerging product is a makeit-yourself bar mix.
“So many moms tell me ‘I love your bars, but they are expensive. I hide them from my kids because they gobble them up’,” says Dyck. “I get how that adds up. I wondered, ‘How can I make this more affordable for people but still have all the good ingredients?’ I came up with an energy bar mix.”
It will contain sprouted brown rice proteins, fibre, peanut flour — all the things that may be hard to come by in regular stores. “We can tell busy moms, ‘We’ve done all the work for you.’
“All they need to do is add peanut butter and honey, roll into a traditional cooking pan and load them into the fridge. I provide the packaging. They get 30 bars, for a buck each, ready to drop into lunchkits or hockey duffel bags.”
Dyck’s triathlon days are over, at least for now. With running a business and hauling her kids (ages 13, 11, 9 and 6) to their sporting events, “I’m full on kid-time now. It’s a lot of work.”
Her Christian faith undergirds her business philosophy.
“This is God’s company. He’s my business partner,” she asserts, noting that GORP can also stand for “God’s Out Reach Project.”
She sees her products as part of a holistic blend of faith, health and creation.
“GORP is something you pack for an adventure, whether a day hike or a mountain-climbing expedition,” she says. “It’s about healthy living and finding adventure in your life and eating clean.”
She sees her products as an answer to a society that is stressedout by food, technology and frantic activity.
“People experience a lot of food stress. What should I eat? What shouldn’t I eat? There’s a lot of fear-mongering going on around food. And there’s a lot of money to be made with fear. We decided we weren’t ever going to use fear as a marketing move.”
She believes too many people are chained to their desks, overwhelmed by mortgages and finances.
“A lot of stress and mental health issues could be avoided and helped if people would remember to get outside and interact with nature,” Dyck says. “With technology today it gets easier and easier not to do that. There’s no replacement for face-toface and foot-to-earth.
“Our whole aim is to inspire people to get outside, have adventures, connect with their community, connect with nature, and realize that the best things in life are free — community, the people around you, and creation — this beautiful planet God created for us to play in.” ◆