Heroes of the COVID Crisis: How Jesse Thomas and Picky Bars provided food and meals for front line workers
Give to those in need. This is pretty simple, but it’s at the core of what we try to do. With rising income inequality that will likely to worsen through a COVID-19 caused recession, giving back is going to be more important than ever. It seems unfortunately unlikely that politics and policy will get us there, so it’s going to be more and more important that private individuals and businesses lead the way. I think businesses are learning that their actions outside of their core business can win them support from customers — so it makes business sense too.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jesse Thomas, CEO of Picky Bars, a real food snack company he co-founded with his wife Lauren Fleshman and friend Steph Bruce in 2010. Jesse carries an MBA from University of Oregon’s Lundquist School of Business and a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford, where he ran on the Cross Country and Track and Field teams. He recently retired from professional triathlon after two major Ironman wins and two appearances at Ironman World Championships. You can also find him as frequently contributing to Triathlete Magazine and co-hosting the Work Play Love podcast.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Jesse! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I finished business school at the peak of the 2009 financial recession — maybe the worst time possible to finish business school, literally hundreds of thousands of MBAs had just been laid off! I was a 29-year-old ex-collegiate distance runner who hadn’t competed in seven years but missed exercising and racing immensely. I started training for triathlons (swim-bike-run) in the hopes of becoming a professional triathlete (yes, that exists) while the economy was tanking. I figured if I wasn’t going to make any money, I may as well do something I love!
I started exercising 3–5 hours a day, and eating 4,000–6,000 calories a day as a result, including lots of highly processed “energy” foods. This wreaked havoc on my stomach. My wife, Lauren Fleshman, one of the best US distance runners ever, was highly incentivized to make my stomach problems go away. She, alongside her friend and fellow professional runner Steph Bruce, started making an energy bar for me in our house with the goals of 1) using all real food ingredients, 2) following sports performance nutrition principles, and 3) tasting great. We called them “Picky Bars” because we were “picky” about having the perfect ingredients, nutrition, and taste.
We shared the first few batches with friends, family, and some fellow athletes, and they really liked them! The demand rose rather quickly and we ultimately had to hire staff to help us prepare them in our own kitchen. I built at the time the world’s worst website to help facilitate the flow of orders and serve the online market.
That was nearly 10 years ago and the company has since grown into a nationally distributed real food company with multiple product lines, an online subscription club and a strong, loyal fan base. Between now and then I fulfilled my dream of becoming a world-class professional triathlete, winning Ironmans around the globe, and just officially announced my retirement from triathlon in early May. My wife continued competing at a world-class level until we had our second child in 2017. So we’ve basically spent the last 10 years starting a food business, competing internationally, and raising two small children! It’s been an absolute circus.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
About a year after we started the company, Lauren was going to run her first ever marathon in New York City. She was a high profile addition to the starting line being a two time US track champion that had never run a marathon, so the racing organization asked a New York Times columnist to follow her for a day prior to the event.
We knew the marathon was supposed to be on TV, so, as new entrepreneurs, we came up with the idea to have her wear a temporary Picky Bars tattoo on her shoulder in case she actually got on TV.
About 10 minutes before the race started an IAAF official (the international governing body for track and field) told Lauren that she wouldn’t be able to wear the tattoo during the race because it’s a brand and violated uniform rules. I don’t know how the official even knew it was a brand since at the time we only had like 50 customers, but they forced Lauren to remove it literally minutes before the start of the race. It took four people scrubbing and peeling at the tattoo, rubbing her arm raw in the process, to get it off. Not what you want minutes before a marathon.
Needless to say there was quite a bunch of commotion, all of which the New York Times columnist was there to witness. He wrote about Lauren’s Picky Bars temporary tattoo fiasco in the article that followed under the lens of how the sport is regulated on the sponsorship side, with the IAAF hamstringing athletes from being able to capitalize on their own sponsorships (many of you may have heard of “Rule 40” by now) even if it’s their own work they’re trying to promote. It ended up being the story of the event and was a huge learning experience for us both on the business and athlete sides. The experience sparked an early cause for the company — fighting for athletes rights amongst these giant governing body monopolies. It’s a cause we’ve been working on since, and while some headway has been made with the IAAF, USATF, and even the NCAA, there’s still a long way to go.
*Ironically, Lauren was on TV for like 5 seconds and only from straight in the front, so you wouldn’t have ever seen the tattoo anyway!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We pride ourselves on creating flavors and flavor names that are unique, whitty, etc. Some examples are “Ah, Fudge Nuts!,” “Chai and Catch Me,” “Sassy Molassy,” and “Moroccan Your World.” Our fifth bar was a cinnamon raisin flavor that we thought tasted a lot like a cinnamon raisin cookie, so I came up with the name “Cookie Doughpness” as a play on “cookie dough” and “dopeness” combined.
Anyway, I thought it was brilliant and hilarious, likely because it was my idea. People liked the flavor but the name was always a struggle — we heard people refer to it as “cookie dough” and “doughness” — never getting the “p” in there for the “dope” reference. About a year or two after the flavor came out somehow the “h” got deleted off some packaging — a bit of funny irony since it wasn’t the letter everyone already left out. “Cookie Dougpness” went out into the world before we could catch it, which luckily not too many people really noticed since it was a weird name to start with, but if you said it phonetically out loud, well, it wasn’t great for obvious reasons.
Needless to say we had to change the packaging and reprint it all, which cost us a bunch of money and a lot of embarrassment. Ironically, we ended up changing the name of the flavor, much to my ego’s dismay, because most people expected the flavor to taste like chocolate chip cookie dough instead of cinnamon raisin. So even though they liked the flavor, it wasn’t what they were expecting, which wasn’t a good customer experience. (We changed the name to Cinnamon Rollin).
The lesson I learned was 1) we definitely need an independent, external set of eyes on our packaging proofs, and more importantly 2) it’s super important to get some external feedback on your ideas as well. It was a great name, but I think if I had had someone outside our small staff try out the flavor after learning the name, we probably would have known it eventually wouldn’t align. I think there’s also a lesson there about being too enamored with your own ideas, and not thinking critically enough about them before putting into motion. All water under the bridge at this point, but still a funny lesson.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
The arrival of COVID-19 has created chaos for individuals, families, and businesses. When we saw the toll it was taking on our community and realized the relatively privileged state of still being able to operate our core business, we knew we had to take action to give back to those affected. The two main things we did were:
- Created a “Front Lines Support Bundle” of products that provided front lines workers with about a week’s worth of on the go breakfast and snacks. We donated 50 of them to our local hospital and 50 of them to an allergy-friendly food bank. We also created the bundle online and set it on a permanent discount with free shipping so our customers could buy and send to whomever they choose.
- In just over three weeks' time, we conceptualized and created a Buy One Give One premium bulk oatmeal bag called “Trail Mix Fix” in response to COVID-19. Our goal was to utilize our unique supply chain to deliver the best value possible to those in need. Since launching about two weeks ago, we’ve sold over 1,500 units (18,000 meals), which means we will donate that same amount to food banks, focused locally and regionally to start, but also with an eye open to food banks with allergy or special dietary needs.
- We also launched two campaigns this year that were focused on raising money for charities aligned with our ethos. The first was our “Coexist” campaign, which was about promoting a positive, sustainable relationship with food (going against the diet culture that tends to dominate food marketing space). The second was our &Mother collaboration, where we’re donating proceeds from sales to the &Mother foundation, which provides aid to athlete mothers. In sum, what we try to do is leverage our own resources — not only cash but our supply chain, product development, marketing — and create value for the causes we care about. But we’re still a relatively small business, so the value we can create alone is limited. The real power lies in us modeling that behavior for our customer and fan base, and then encouraging and enabling them to participate as well. That’s how we’ve been able to have the most impact so far.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
We have gotten tons of emails back from people who have received front line support bundles. Here’s one of my favorites.
“I am working as an emergency physician at Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton, MA. We have the second-highest rate of Coronavirus in Massachusetts and we are getting hit hard right now. A friend of mine sent me your care package just as the surge was building and it’s been a lifesaver!! I don’t want to eat anywhere near the emergency department anymore as Coronavirus is everywhere. I always bring a couple of bars for a snack midway through my shift, where I remove my face mask and scarf down the bars and something to drink. And I keep a bar waiting for me in the car for my drive home. Plus I have oatmeal before my shift. The Smooth Caffeinator to keep me awake on overnight shifts. I know it’s not a “workout,” but I need your bars! So much better than any previous bars I’ve tried. I just ordered another care package for myself.”
This is the type of stuff we share every week in our “Weekly Customer Service Update” that goes out to all of our staff. Hearing something like this makes it worth it for sure.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Here are two things related to our givebacks above:
- Give to those in need. This is pretty simple, but it’s at the core of what we try to do. With rising income inequality that will likely to worsen through a COVID-19 caused recession, giving back is going to be more important than ever. It seems unfortunately unlikely that politics and policy will get us there, so it’s going to be more and more important that private individuals and businesses lead the way. I think businesses are learning that their actions outside of their core business can win them support from customers — so it makes business sense too.
- Let’s lay off the “perfect diet” nonsense. Yes, there is a problem with obesity in this country and a lot of that has been driven by mass food production, but there’s also a problem with this endless cycle of diet trends that come and go. There are success stories here and there but the vast majority of data shows that people who take on restrictive diets end up in a worse place than where they started, oftentimes they’ve developed an unhealthy relationship with food that can lead to eating disorders. We’ve been in the food business long enough to see at least two or three big diet cycles come and go, and to see the massive products and marketing push behind each one to try to influence people’s eating habits of what’s “right and wrong.” Like I said before, we believe in a balanced, sustainable positive relationship with food, and that’s part of the reason we wanted to donate NEDA through our efforts.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership can happen in so many ways, I think it’s tough to define specifically. You can lead people, businesses, etc, by being an outspoken advocate for a cause, but you can also just lead by example in the belief that others will follow. Everyone has their own style and natural intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, or even just how extrovert or introvert they are. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to lead, it just comes down to doing things in the way that you believe is right, and encouraging people around you to do the same in a way that feels authentic to you and your cause.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Don’t start a business with your wife — Ha! Don’t worry, my wife and I are fine, but it’s been a wild ride for sure. There are a lot of relationship hats and needs to juggle when you’re both pro athletes, AND business partners, AND parents on top of that. When you add it all up it’s a handful, and the business has definitely taken its toll on our relationship. We talk about our ups and downs a ton, as well as answer other people's questions on how to balance life, on our podcast Work, Play, Love. It’s part of our therapy! Like I said at the beginning, it’s been a circus. I love my wife dearly and there’s no way that Picky Bars would be what it is without her, but if I ever get another crack at starting a business, I’ll keep it my thing for the better of both of us!
Accomplishing anything great takes longer than you think, so make sure you love what you’re doing. I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since we started Picky Bars. Time flies, and it’s a slow burn. Luckily, I love what I do. If I didn’t, and I was waiting for some magic outcome at the end, there’s no way it would be worth it. I think a lot of entrepreneurs and athletes think about what it would be like to accomplish a goal, as opposed to if they will enjoy the process of getting there or not. If you’re not enjoying the process, it’s unlikely that goal is going to happen.
It never goes the way you think it’s going to — This is related to the last one, but I guess the other thing I’ll say is don’t take failure personally. I’ve made so many freaking mistakes athletically, personally, and professionally. It’s part of the process. It still bothers me, I hate making mistakes, but I’ve made enough of them now that I’m better at sloughing them off and moving on to the next thing.
Balance only exists in the long term — My wife and I talk about work/life balance a lot on our podcast. People expect that to mean balanced days of work, family, exercise, etc. But doing anything at a high level, personally, professionally, athletically, absolutely requires big chunks of time in imbalance — time where you’re focused on your specific goal, and your life is pretty myopic. I’ve had lots of 3–12-week “cycles” over the last 10 years where I’ve spent the vast majority of my time and energy solely on training (before an Ironman), Picky Bars (scaling for a national distributor), or family (off season and when my kids were born). What’s important is to remember to rebalance the scales after those extreme times of focus by leaning in to the “neglected” areas of life and the people involved. Then over the long term, you have balance.
Ask for help from real people in real life — I think in this world of Google, Youtube, and constant access to information, people have lost sight of the value of 1:1 relationships with mentors, coaches, colleagues, etc. Something that has become extremely valuable later in my professional athletic and business career has been relationships with people that I fostered one on one, basically asking them for advice. You have to invest time obviously, but it’s so worth it, both for the knowledge gained that can help you avoid mistakes, but also for the personal fulfillment you get from creating and maintaining that relationship. Like I said above, it makes the process that much more fulfilling.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d do something around that basic giving back movement — doing our best as citizens and business owners to reduce the wealth and resource gap. To me, it’s crazy that so few own so much of the wealth in this world. I understand free-market economics (I have two master degrees!) but at some point, you have to take a step back and ask yourself — should a CEO make 10000x more than his or her worker on the floor? The free market says yes, but does your gut? Does that person need that much money? What is the marginal gain to the CEO vs. the worker of a slight shift in income from the top to the bottom? Is there something that we as business leaders and individuals can do about this on our own if our government is unable to come to a consensus? Is there a pledge we can make to pay our workers fairly, to give back a certain amount to our communities? I think we’re seeing more of this with wealth amongst tech, but it would be cool to see that filter down beyond a couple of key billionaires to broader businesses and individuals.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The one I always think of is this magnet that my mom had on the refrigerator when I was growing up. It said, “Sometimes you just have to jump and build your wings on the way down.” Growing up I didn’t understand it, but it’s become more relevant and relatable as I’ve dealt with bigger ups and downs, and setting longer-term goals athletically, professionally, and personally in more complex environments. There’s this almost unrealistic optimism and confidence I think you have to have to achieve something great. If it was easy, or the path was clear, everyone would do it, right? This quote is a great reminder to me, particularly because I come from a more analytical/engineering mindset, that you can’t always have a perfect plan to meet your goal. Sometimes plans develop after you set out, and as I’ve progressed more in business, I’ve seen that that’s oftentimes more often the case.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
The first person I thought of was President Obama. It might be the nostalgia in me for the pre craziness of not only this year but the seemingly mounting craziness of the last four years. I’d love to chat with him one on one about what he thinks is going on, how we can best help, and honestly, to have him tell me it’s all going to be ok! His positive, but practical and unifying demeanor is something I think more of us could use right now. I know not everyone sees him that way, but I do, and it would be awesome to chat with him about it all.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
They can follow Picky Bars on Instagram and Twitter @pickybars. I’m best on Instagram @jessemthomas.