Larabar's Founder Stocked Shelves at Whole Foods to Learn About Retail

By starting at the bottom, Lara Merriken got a quick education to food-product sales and marketing.
Larabar's Founder Stocked Shelves at Whole Foods to Learn About Retail
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This story appears in the January 2020 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Lara Merriken needed to make some changes. In 2000, after an intense decade spent earning a psychology degree and building a career in social work, she could no longer ignore her entrepreneurial itch. She thought about how her own wheat allergy had forced her to rethink her diet -- and to find her own solutions. What began as kitchen experiments to benefit her own health eventually grew into Lärabar, a snack brand that launched in 2003 and won over fans with its dessert-flavored bars (cashew cookie, cherry pie) made from a handful of natural, whole ingredients. Merriken’s commitment to keeping her products simple became her biggest asset, and when she sold Lärabar to General Mills in 2008, it was because she trusted the food giant to stay true to that ethos. Today, Lärabar has five product lines, and Merriken still serves as creative director, helping to ensure that the brand continues to grow in the same way she built it: One step at a time.

Related: These Women Entrepreneurs Have Created a Multimillion-Dollar Business by Reinventing Sorbet

1. Solve your own problem.

At age 23, Merriken discovered she had a food allergy. That sparked an obsession with the world of natural foods -- and what was missing from it. “Why hadn’t someone made a truly healthy snack that tastes indulgent?” she says. She started making date-based concoctions in her Cuisinart, emulating the flavors of cakes and pies with simple mixes of fruits, nuts, and spices. Then she’d go to her friends’ offices to see what people thought -- her very first focus groups.

2. Pay your dues.

Merriken thought there might be an opportunity to sell her bars, so she wanted to understand the retail space. To do that, she left social work behind and took a gig stocking shelves at Whole Foods. “It didn’t sound good on paper, walking away from a job like that, but I wanted to learn,” she says. She spent two years absorbing the marketing of new products and various tactics to get them in front of customers. 

Related: 'One Email From Whole Foods Launched My Entire Business,' Says the Co-Founder of a Gluten Free Frozen Food Brand

3. Spot your opening.

As she was taking out the trash during a Whole Foods shift, Merriken bumped into a buyer, who politely greeted her and asked what was new. “I was like, ‘Let me tell you!’ ” she recalls. “I don’t think he actually wanted an answer when he said, ‘What’s new?,’ but I gave him some samples and explained the product.” Impressed with her innovation, the buyer told her to keep in touch.

4. Make it work.

By 2003, Merriken reached a turning point: She understood the market and had developed her Lärabars to the point where they could be stocked on shelves. That Whole Foods buyer gave her some local shelf space, and the product was an instant hit. “We didn’t even have the right equipment,” she says. “I had to roll the bars out with a rolling pin and cut them with a pizza cutter. The first 500 bars took us about 15 hours to make and package with, like, a zillion people helping.” 

Related: It Took 2 Years for This Entrepreneur to Convince an Icelandic Dairy Company to Partner Up on a Yogurt-Like Snack

5. Find help.

Lärabar hit its five-year goals during its first year in business, and Merriken realized she would need help for the next step. She identified areas where she could outsource work. “We finally got a distributor after six months and it was like: Wow,” she says. “It meant that we were already set up for the next increment of growth. When retailers would call, we never had to say we weren’t ready to partner. We were.”

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