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It’s hard enough to make an energy bar that’s vegan and gluten-free but still has a viable shelf life, satisfies food safety regulations, includes local ingredients and comes in a wrapper that can be recycled.
Then you have to make it taste good.
Ryan DesRoches, owner of Bandha Nutrition Products in Halifax, now has his energy bars in 26 Sobeys stores and counting.
Partnering with the grocery chain has been a dream since he was a high school student in Charlottetown, exceptional enough to earn a Sobeys scholarship, which are both very valuable and very hard to win.
“First time I got my entrepreneurial spark was when I was a newspaper carrier for The Guardian,” said DesRoches, 32. “I was growing my route and there were incentives, if you grow your route you’ll get a gift card. I was biking as well, to deliver them, so I liked that aspect of being outside plus building my route.”
After graduating from Queen’s University in 2009, he worked for Deloitte in Toronto for two and a half years in its financial advisory group.
“I ended up in Halifax on a project, fell in love with Halifax, liked being closer to family and moved here, then started my energy bar business,” he said.
Energy bars as a business was an idea that came to him when he was a Canada Games cyclist for Prince Edward Island, and ate them by the bushel.
“I decided to cut sugar out of my diet, realized I was drinking a lot of sports drinks, decided there was a need for an energy bar with no sugar added that also had natural ingredients, local ingredients,” he said.
The first customer for his new business was Halifax Yoga, where he’d been doing yoga teacher training, soon expanding to cafes.
“I was renting a kitchen when it was closed on Sundays ... and it worked great at the time, let us get our feet on the ground. Then three or four years ago, we leased a space,” DesRoches said. “I learned to bake with my grandmother and mother when I was young, so I was always in the kitchen, baking, and worked in food in a lot of my jobs as well. I did an internship at Nestle and worked in hotels, so always been drawn to food.”
Bandha gets all its dried fruit from producers in Nova Scotia, with the exception of dates, which come from Iran. Cranberries, blueberries and apples are local and the cranberries and blueberries are custom-made so there’s no sugar added.
“We do have customers who are diabetic who find they can eat our bars and it doesn’t give them a blood sugar spike, so it gives them energy without a rush or a crash,” said DesRoches.
When he first approached Sobeys about making a deal, they wanted him to improve packaging and the product’s shelf life, so he invested in equipment that doubled shelf life while still using reusable packaging.
“Our bar is unique in that the wrapper is recyclable, whereas most other bars it’s two different types of plastic glued together. Ours is just number five film, so we have less shelf life than the bars that can be on the shelf for one to two years; ours is more like four months,” he said.
Bandha bars are made by hand at the company’s facility in Halifax, and machine-packaged in the same facility, using a product made by Farnell Packaging in Dartmouth. Bandha means bound energy in Sanskrit, the language used in yoga.
“So, when you eat a bar you get the energy bound up in the ingredients,” said DesRoches, who also owns Greens of Haligonia, which grows sprouts. The facility the two companies share employs seven.
Customers have taken bandha bars to marathons in Dublin and Los Angeles, and to Mount Kilimanjaro.
There are four flavours, all have more than 50 per cent nuts or seeds as the base.
“We use dates for natural sweetness,” DesRoches said. “A lot of customers try our bars and are suprised ... they say ‘not too sweet.’ I want it to give you energy without a sugar rush or a sugar crash. It tastes nice and people can taste the natural ingredients, like organic almonds and cashews and walnuts, and people like those things.”