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How Two Business Students Created Nutrition Bars for Dancers

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As a principal dancer with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and a business major at the University of Pittsburgh, Julia Erickson would race between rehearsals and classes, often turning to snack foods for convenience.

In 2010, bored with energy bars and prepackaged trail mixes, Erickson retreated to her kitchen. She wanted to create a nutrient-packed snack with a mix of protein, fiber and carbohydrates that would provide the stamina she needed to perform but with fewer processed ingredients and calories.

"As a dancer, how I look matters," Erickson explains. "I've spent a lifetime figuring out how to eat to be strong but slender--and doing it while grazing during short breaks."

Using dates, walnuts, pecans, rolled oats, sea salt and cinnamon, she created a snack bar in her food processor. During rehearsals for Swan Lake, Erickson offered samples to her fellow dancers, who loved the taste and natural ingredients as much as she did. "A lot of them said, ‘Do you sell these? I like them so much better than the other bars I've been eating," she recalls.

Erickson decided to turn her kitchen experiment into a business. With $8,000 from her savings, she teamed up with her partner, dancer and University of Pittsburgh management graduate Aaron Ingley, to start a company, Barre.

Equipped with food-handler permits, a food processor and ingredients purchased at Costco, the two produced their first flavor, Pirouette Cinnamon Pecan, in Erickson's kitchen. Erickson sold the bars to Pittsburgh Ballet dancers.

"There are a lot of dance students who are running between school and classes, grabbing snacks with dubious ingredients from vending machines in dance studios," she says. "We are the first food product made for dancers, by dancers."

When their initial run of 2,000 bars sold out, Erickson and Ingley initiated a round of equity funding. The couple raised $100,000 in exchange for a 28 percent share in Barre and went into full production, adding a second flavor, Black Swan Chocolate Berry.

Barre debuted its products to a national audience last year at the Dance Retailer News Expo in Las Vegas. Within weeks, the couple scrambled to meet orders from dance and fitness studios nationwide. Today Barre is sold in 170 retail outlets across the U.S., including Whole Foods Market; in fact, Barre created an exclusive flavor, Ballerina Spirulina, for 40 Whole Foods stores in the mid-Atlantic region.

"We get approached about carrying a lot of bars that are essentially candy bars in energy-bar packaging," says Jennifer Bradley-Morris, team leader at Whole Foods in Pittsburgh. "Barre has minimal ingredients and is the cleanest bar we sell. But there is also a great story behind it."

Barre generated revenue of $35,000 in the first year; Erickson expects to top $100,000 in 2012. She attributes the success to the product's taste and to her belief in it. "It's not just that we have a bar with a distinct message that looks different from others on the shelf," she says. "These bars are coming from our palettes, our kitchen, our expertise as athletes and people who care about what we put into our bodies."