"That's where innovation comes from, guys in their kitchen who are thinking up stuff."
It may be that a man with a Norwich terrier in his lap gives off feel-good vibes. Or perhaps it was something in the organic, energy-food ingredients I sampled before our conversation. Whatever the case, my visit with Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson, 53, his wife and co-CEO, Kit Crawford, 52, and Sparky, their dog, ended up feeling more like a relaxed hot-tub soak than a conference-table corporate interview. For a couple who run a reported $235 million company, they are almost impossibly calm and benevolent employers: Clif’s new headquarters in Emeryville, California, features a café that serves subsidized organic meals, a gym-studio that offers free fitness classes, and a childcare center. For Erickson, a former amateur bike racer and vagabond climber who concocted the original Clif Bar recipe in 1992 in his mom’s kitchen, this is the only way to run a family business.
ROBERTS: Clif was born out of a passion for adventure sports and homemade food. But to build a company this big, you have to be a risk-loving entrepreneur, right?
ERICKSON: I still love competing. We’re not the only game in town, and I like being in the game. We labor over everything: new products, packaging, labels. Putting something on the market and hoping it sells—we live for that.
Isn’t the energy-foods market getting kind of wacky now, with products like Honey Stinger waffles and Justin’s Nut Butter? Do you laugh at some of these things?
ERICKSON: Never, because we’ve been wrong too many times. People pooh-poohed Gu when it first came out, and look what happened there. That’s where innovation comes from, these guys in their kitchens who are thinking up stuff.
One of your riskier ventures was the Luna bar, which is designed and marketed for women. It’s been a huge success, but I have to ask: Can a real man eat Luna?
CRAWFORD: Oh yeah!
ERICKSON: We didn’t think this would happen, but a man who eats a Luna bar always has to make a comment—which is perfect. What was the line by that writer for the San Francisco Business Times? “You don’t have to worry, you won’t grow high heels.” They’re not gonna do anything weird to men. We think that about 30 percent of the consumers are men. Women buy ’em and men eat ’em.
How come we never see mainstream, team-sports athletes eating Clif products along with their Gatorade?
ERICKSON: We tried with those sports and had a hard time. We’ve done pro hockey and pro football, but we went in the back door. You say, “Hey, give these to your guys.” You start talking about being an official sponsor, though, and it blows our entire marketing budget just for one team.
CRAWFORD: Many professional athletes use Clif products; they just can’t talk about it because they have a contract with a big company.
ERICKSON: They still don’t get it. I mean, what are football players doing at halftime drinking some sports drink? They’re burning thousands of calories. I don’t know why they’re not doing a Clif Shot in the third quarter. They’re beat up and getting weaker. Think about it. You go for a four-hour bike ride—you don’t have something after two hours, you’re gonna bonk.
You two moved to the Napa Valley in 2003, and now you’re selling Clif-branded wines and artisanal snack mixes. What’s the plan for your new tasting room, Velo Vino?
ERICKSON: It’s going to be an interesting blend of the world of Clif Bar, the world of wine, and everything in between. We’re going to have pairings with our nut mixes and serve charcuterie and cheese plates. We’ll promote all things cycling with group rides and clinics. Garmin will come in and have GPSs with planned routes to our farm and vineyard.
You’ve gone from riding your bike to mixing up bars in your mom’s kitchen to creating an energy-foods empire to being a winemaker. Connect those dots for me.
CRAWFORD: It’s been a real trip. It’s about a passion for food—growing food, eating food, and even selling food. There are things that people buy and then don’t buy again for years. Maybe you buy a bike every five years. But you need to eat every day. It’s a really good business to be in.