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Transforming a Celiac diagnosis into a top-selling snack: The Gluten Free Bar Story

Elliot Rader

Developing a snack bar designed to serve those who have Celiac's Disease or those who are simply gluten-intolerant, Elliott and his brother, Marshall, developed their tasty snack almost a decade ago. Now selling the Gluten Free Bar and other associated products in over 9,000 stores across the country, in Canada, and in Europe, the Rader brothers have transformed a simple idea into a successful B-corp, one bar at a time.
"We had a pretty small focus," says Elliott Rader, co-founder of the Gluten Free Bar. Developing a snack bar designed to serve those who have Celiac's Disease or those who are simply gluten-intolerant, Elliott and his brother, Marshall, developed their tasty snack almost a decade ago. Now selling the Gluten Free Bar and other associated products in over 9,000 stores across the country and in Canada, the Rader brothers have transformed a simple idea into a successful B Corporation, one bar at a time.

In 2008, Marshall Rader was diagnosed with Celiac Disease. "It was still very early and no one knew what Celiac was at the time," says Elliott. Traveling quite often for work, Marshall struggled with eating while on the road, and was often forced to consume snack bars that he hated. "Every bar I buy either tastes like crap but has decent ingredients or tastes good but has a bunch of junk in it," he said. "I didn't quite understand the pain," says Elliott, of Marshall's constant troubleshooting of his diet.

However, after working for Google for ten years, Elliott decided to change direction, and was seeking to start a business with his brother. Utilizing Marshall's dietary struggles as their launching point, the brothers decided to seek out and develop a great tasting, gluten free snack. "It just made sense," says Elliott. Both living in Chicago at the time, Elliott and Marshall rented a bakery space about an hour outside the city, and soon found themselves making small batch bars and selling them door-to-door.

GFB snack bars. Though they were sold on their idea for a gluten free bar, the Raders struggled with the culinary aspect of invention. "We tried to create these flavors on our own and it was a total disaster," says Elliott. After posting on craigslist seeking a chef to assist with flavor creation, the Raders found Jeremy Sher, a chef who was then employed at a Chicago cupcake bakery. "He's really great at making really great-tasting stuff," says Elliott. Combining necessity with creativity, the three worked together and in 2010, Gluten Free Bar was officially born.

After one year, Gluten Free Bar had its first big order from a little-known grocery store in their home town of Grand Rapids: Meijer. After simply cold-calling the midwest grocery giant, the Raders were flabbergasted at the opportunity. "I think we got lucky for sure," says Elliott. I'm not sure we would be here today without Meijer making that first order." Still working out of their Chicago bakery space, Elliott and Marshall needed to act fast to fulfill an impressive order. "We kind of had to scramble," says Elliott. Together, the two decided to return to Grand Rapids, rented a 3000 sq. ft. industrial condo off Fulton near Amway Corporation, and purchased all of the necessary equipment.

Utilizing a home-built wooden machine (crafted by their father) to affix stickers to self-wrapped cellophane pouches, the Raders built their business bar by bar for that first year in Grand Rapids. As Gluten Free Bar grew in popularity and other stores caught on to the specialty snack, the Raders quickly outgrew their small space and purchased a 28,000 sq. ft. facility near Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Described by Elliott as "really modern, really clean," this new manufacturing facility gives Gluten Free Bar the room it needs to fulfill current orders as well as continue to grow.

"Bites"And grow they have. In addition to all 230 Meijer stores, Gluten Free Bar can be found in Spartan Stores, all Whole Foods groceries in the midwest, Stop 'n Shop on the east coast, Harvest Health, Kingma's, and a few Canadian and European groceries as well. This far reach has enabled the Raders to continue inventing, adding new products to their roster of gluten-free snacks.

One such product is the Gluten Free "Bites," a resealable "pouch snack" coated in nuts. Proving its popularity, the bites are now half of GFB's annual business. GFB also recently launched GFB Power Breakfast, which Elliott describes as "like oatmeal but better." Including nuts, seeds, and hemp hearts in their recipe, the Raders have opted for a protein-loaded breakfast option that comes in a transformable package. "The packaging is probably the coolest part," says Elliott, who opted to not name their packaging manufacturer due to the unique and desirable design.

Perhaps the Rader brothers biggest point of pride—besides having built a successful business off of a healthy snack and headquartering it here in their home town—is their certified B Corp status. Defined by B Corporation defines this special designation on their website: "B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk. B Corps are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency."

"It aligned with our values here," says Elliott, who, together with his brother, had from the start desired to limit GFB's impact on the planet, pay living wages, and hire local employees, among other things. After 1.5 years with the certification, Elliott notes, "We're proud to be a Michigan B Corp."

Starting with a simple idea and sticking to it, Elliott and Marshall Rader have made the Gluten Free Bar a staple in West Michigan and beyond. With a straightforward promise that even "a 5-year old can read our label," Gluten Free Bar keeps their snacks free of gluten, all while providing a healthy, protein rich alternative to snacking. And the best part of GFB? I hear they actually taste good…

Interested in learning more about small business, snacks, and certified B-corp's? Elliott Rader will speak about his GFB experience at our upcoming High Growth Happy Hour Event at the Mitten Brewing Company on Thursday, May 25 at 6 p.m. Admission FREE but please RSVP!

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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