In 2007, Kimberly Dobbins was working as director of global recruiting for Morningstar, the investment research company, when she took a paid, six-week sabbatical – a perk the company offers its employees – to do some soul-searching. “While I was happy at work, I needed something more in my personal life,” says Dobbins, who had previously worked in human resources at Goldman Sachs. “I didn’t know if it was volunteering or a hobby.”
All signs pointed toward health and wellness, so Dobbins decided to enroll in weekend classes in dietary theory when she returned to Morningstar, which is based in Chicago. Around the same time, she concocted a homemade nutrition bar free of wheat, gluten, dairy, soy and refined sugars. Initially dubbed “the Sabbaticals,” Dobbins was surprised to find that her snack – made with nuts, honey, vanilla, sea salt and herbs or spices — was popular with friends and even her husband, Sean, a meat-and-potatoes guy. “And I thought, well, maybe there’s an idea there,” she says.
Dobbins renamed the product Simple Squares, but she wasn’t ready to quit her day job yet. She thought she’d make the bars in a commercial kitchen, and sell them at farmers’ markets on weekends. “That was going to be my new personal passion,” she says. But when she learned that the farmers’ markets required attendance, with penalties for no-shows, she nixed the idea. “It wasn’t worth the effort,” she says.
So she decided to take a shot at Plan B: mass distribution.
Learning how to manufacture a snack bar when you don’t know anything about the food industry and have a full-time corporate job that requires travel to the United Kingdom and Australia, isn’t the easiest feat. And Dobbins spent much of 2009 figuring out the process.
First, she read the book “Sell Your Specialty Food” by Stephen Hall, which covered the basics, and then she searched the Internet to find a manufacturer that would do a pilot run. Eventually, she contacted a food-processing facility run by Land O’Lakes, the Minneapolis dairy company. “They says, ‘we don’t normally work for companies unless they have $1 million in sales,’” she says. “But they were very kind.”
The facility put her in touch with a consultant, also based in Minneapolis, who for $1,200 agreed to help Dobbins find a manufacturer, develop a business model and come up with a commercial recipe. The consultant flew to Chicago, and spent time with Dobbins at Kitchen Chicago, which rents shared kitchen space by the hour. “I brought my food processor, and pots and pans,” she says. “It was helpful for him to see how I made it so he could tell what equipment I needed.” The consultant found her a manufacturer, a family-run business in Oregon, willing to work with a start-up.
In early 2010, while still working full-time at Morningstar, Dobbins spent about $2,500 on her first pilot run— a batch of Simple Squares in individually wrapped plain packs. She had them shipped to a hotel in Anaheim, Calif., where she attended Natural Products Expo West that March. “The night before the show started, my whole family was there to support me,” she recalled. “We were putting stickers on these silver packages.” The trade expo was a success for Dobbins, who says she took a “ton of orders.” She also “pounded the pavement” in Chicago and got local natural stores and gyms to carry Simple Squares.
Six weeks later, she says, “We had a major snafu. All the bars started leaking oil.” It was because of the nuts, and it forced Dobbins to spend about eight months working with the manufacturer to refine the process. She hated to lose the momentum picked up from the Expo, she says, but most customers were patient with the delay.
At the end of 2010, she took a three-month leave of absence from Morningstar to gear up for Simple Squares’ first official production run, with formal packaging — and to determine if she wanted to make the start-up her new career. “Everybody was saying, ‘don’t leave the corporate job, look at all the perks and benefits,’” she says. But the trial period cemented her desire to provide “a healthy alternative to what’s out there.” She resigned from Morningstar in early 2011.
Today, Dobbins’ bars are sold in 2,500 stores, including Whole Foods and Fairway locations. Each year, she has tripled her sales, selling about 450,000 bars in 2013, generally in 12-packs that retail for about $30. She now employs two full-time and two part-time employees to help with sales, accounting and business development.
About a year-and-a-half ago, Dobbins began working with large distributors to get the product into retail chains, and she also hired a broker to communicate with the distributors. “It’s driving the growth of the business,” she says.
Even so, Simple Squares is still just breaking even. Dobbins estimates that the company will finally turn a profit this fall — seven years after her Morningstar sabbatical. She spent about $50,000 to get Simple Squares up and running, she says, and she continues to bootstrap the company with savings from her corporate career. She plans to seek financing from a bank or investors.
Entrepreneurship, she says, “is 5,000 times more challenging than I thought it would be.”
Kimberly Dobbins, Founder of Simple Squares, Health Food Bar
Kimberly Dobbins (KD): I was just looking for something more in my personal life. I loved my profession., but I needed something more. And all roads pointed to health and wellness.
CARD: Kimberly Crupi Dobbins – Founder-Simple Squares – Chicago – USA
KD: Really you are what you eat and less is more. I’m really trying to promote that simple lifestyle. Simple Squares are exactly that, very simple. They’re made with just five simple ingredients. My original goal was just to sell to farmers markets and have a great side business. But it turned into a career and lifestyle change
KD SOT: I would love to give the chili pepper a try.
KD: When I grew up I thought I was going to be an actress. In second grade we had a production of the Wizard of Oz. I of course thought I would go out audition for Dorothy. Not only did I not get Dorothy but I was cast as part of the yellow brick road. But it turned out great, I was a proud brick.
CARD: Kimberly continued acting throughout high school and college. After a brief stint as a teacher…Kimberly joined financial giant Goldman Sachs in 1998, working in human resources.
KD: I loved it. The people, the training. The education I received was, I think, invaluable.
CARD: In 2003, Kimberly took a position at Morningstar, an investment research firm.
KD: They offer a program to their employees that allows individuals to take a 6 week paid leave, really to do whatever they want. So, on my sabbatical, I decided to travel. And part of the goal of this trip was to focus on what I wanted to do in my personal life. I was looking into volunteer opportunities, I was looking into resurrecting the acting career. When I returned I decided to focus on health and wellness.
CARD: Kimberly began a nutrition studies program. She sought help from a holistic health practitioner for a chronic skin problem.
KD: I was having really just these very large cystic bumps on my face that would last for about 6 months. And she had recommended that I go on an elimination diet. Eliminating wheat, gluten, dairy, soy and refined sugars from my diet. I am a self-professed lover of snacks and deserts, and what I found myself doing was eating bananas with maple syrup every day, which I didn’t think that was necessarily good for me as well.
CARD: Kimberly tried concocting her own snacks mixing nuts, honey, vanilla, sea salt and herbs.
KD SOT: I’m really excited to try this one.
KD: My husband– very stereotypical midwest eating habits–I gave him some of the squares. He liked them, and I thought “maybe there’s an idea there.'”
CARD: In 2009, with savings from her corporate career, Kimberly set up a company called Simplified Foods. She found a manufacturer to make her snack bars.
KD: We had attended a trade show, received a ton of orders, had great feedback on the product. And then about 6 weeks into receiving our first set of bars, we noticed that they were starting to leak oil. So we needed to go back to the drawing board, and that took about 8 months to really reformulate and get it right.
CARD: In 2011, Kimberly left Morningstar to work full time on Simplified Squares. That year she sold 50,000 bars. In 2013, working with a national distributer, sales jumped to 450,000.
KD: Our target audiences are primarily individuals who are gluten free, people who are focusing on a raw and Paleo diet. As well as individuals that are road warriors. People on the go. So we’re beginning to really focus on consumer groups throughout the country. Working with different dietitians.
KD SOT: Would you like to try some coconut goodness here?
KD: I love going out and talking to people and getting their feedback.
SOT: We definitely are seeing more and more customers who are interested in going Paleo.
CARD: Simple Squares are sold in more than 2,500 outlets– supermarkets, gyms, health centers and airports. But the company has yet to turn a profit.
KD: Still self-funding. While we are solvent on a day to day basis, it’s more about needing the working capital. We haven’t sold our, ya know, next run, but we need to pay for it. So, I am looking at local banks so that we may secure a working line of credit.
SOT: Right amount of chili pepper? -Excellent
KD: The goal is to grow the company and eventually sell. However, I may decide, hey I want to keep this growing. I want to keep this under my wing. We’ll see where the road takes us.
CARD: Kimberly still has the acting bug. She has signed with a talent agency and is going on auditions.
Producers – Victoria Wang and Sue Williams
Director – Sue Williams
Editor – Merril Stern
Director of New Media and Outreach – Colleen DeBaise
Director of Photography – Sam Shinn
Production Assistant – Nadine Natour
Assistant Editor – Matt Strickland
Social Media– Thea Piltzecker
Music – Killer Tracks
Photos Courtesy of:
Sandy Sagar, Alison Sauter, Eric Watanabe, 123rf