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Meat market

Montana company introduces a different kind of energy bar

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A grizzly bear and two cubs graze the meadows of Two Creek Monture Ranch near Ovando. Trumpeter swans tend to a nest on nearby wetlands. Roughly 1,000 head of cattle are to pasture, turning grass into beef. Cooper and Anne Burchenal see this bucolic setting as not only the inspiration but also the backbone of a new, unapologetically different breed of energy bar.

In a marketplace increasingly defined by niches and ingredients left behind (gluten-free, fat-free and so on), the Omnibar caters to anyone who eats everything. It is made of fruit, grains, nuts and, true to its ranching roots, beef. Unlike conventional energy bars, the Omnibar is savory and tastes more like a meal and less like a dessert.

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  • Anne and Cooper Burchenal

“We are what we are, we’re not going to make a vegan version. There are other products for that,” says Brent Ruby, a University of Montana physiologist who is a founding partner along with the Burchenals in the Omnibar enterprise.

The entrepeneurial trio intend to shoehorn their Omnibar into the $5.7 billion energy bar retail market. With more than 500 cereal or energy bars already on American shelves, it will be tough to get noticed. But the Omnibar team feels their product will have a better chance than most when it hits stores this fall. As one of the industry’s only meat-based bars, Omnibar will be distinctively different. But the confidence of the crew behind it has just as much to do with a business plan that capitalizes on the company’s tight-knit Montana connections.

If you put your palm over the Blackfoot River on a Montana highway map and spread your fingers west, you’re essentially covering the whole Omnibar production chain with your hand.

Cows culled from the Burchenals’ ranch in Ovando are slaughtered at White’s Wholesale Meats in Ronan. The meat and other ingredients are mixed, rolled and baked by Vandevanter Meats in Columbia Falls. There, they are packaged using a unique horizontal wrapping machine rebuilt by a guy in St. Regis—the only person in North America who works on such contraptions. Six Pony Hitch, a design firm in Missoula, created the Omnibar logo of an open-mouthed bear, the Old West lettering on the packaging and the company’s motto: “Eat it all.”

“It’s a Missoula product. It’s highly reflective of this community. That’s what’s been fun about developing it,” company founder Cooper Burchenal says. “One of the true virtues and delights of Montana is if you need to talk to someone as a resource, there’s almost nothing that stands between me and an expert. It’s a very entrepreneurial place.”

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Cooper and Anne have tested their entrepreneurial mettle before. He is educated as a sculptor and painter. She has a deep interest in horticulture. They used to run a nursery on the banks of the Ohio River devoted to native grasses. It blossomed as a space for art and outdoor events, but not as a business. They shuttered Ohio River Grass in 2001 and moved to Montana. Cooper became a founding partner in the Missoula design firm saltStudio, but that enterprise faded as the partners went their separate ways.

Still enthralled by the entrepreneurial spirit, Cooper and Anne looked at what they already had and started again.

The ranch near Ovando had been a Burchenal family destination since Cooper was a boy. His father, Ralph, was a successful Cincinnati banker who owned farms in the Midwest. But Ralph Burchenall’s fondness for agriculture was no match for the majesty of a ranch at the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. A pack trip into the Bob tilted him forever westward and he bought ranchland on Monture Creek in 1971. Today, the ranch contains acreage from several properties and leases 3,436 of its acres to the University of Montana’s Bandy Experimental Ranch.

The family visited in summertime, sometimes traveling in an old school bus outfitted with bunks and living space. While summers were always a social time, community took a more central role when Cooper’s 12-year-old older brother was struck by lightning in Ohio and killed. Their mother, Toone, sought solace in the company of crowds.

“The only way she could stay sane and keep the pain at bay was to have a lot of people around,” Cooper says.

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The tradition of reaching out and inviting others in is central to Cooper’s character and defines his approach to building Omnibar. It explains how Cooper and Brent Ruby came to know each other, how Cooper and Anne found the rare packaging machine in St. Regis, and how Cooper put together his team of local manufacturers.

“I would never have come up with something like this in my wildest dreams,” says Ron Vandevanter, a veteran jerky maker who runs the Columbia Falls meat-processing plant that mixes, bakes and packages Omnibar. “Cooper is good at finding things. He just knows how to find the right things and people.”

When Cooper first called Brent Ruby, he wanted to talk about jerky.

Ruby is a physiologist, probably best known locally for studies that remove plugs of flesh from cyclists who pedal long distances in order to gauge exercise metabolism. As the director of UM’s new Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism, Ruby focuses on the needs of what he calls “occupational endurance athletes,” such as wildland firefighters and military personnel.

When Cooper called, Ruby steered him away from jerky because it provides poor fuel for working muscles. He instead encouraged Cooper to look for unprocessed ingredients, especially fats and carbohydrates, that would make the Omnibar more complete and complex than its competitors. Most people, Ruby says, don’t know what their body needs to thrive at work.

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“On the fire line, everyone is wearing a yellow jersey,” he says, referring to the color worn by both firefighters and Tour de France champions. “I always ask them, ‘Why aren’t you eating like the elite endurance occupational athletes you are?’”

Ruby says the Omnibar team is “concerned with feeding people the right way to get the job done.” This often means bucking traditional energy foods, such as gels. Fructose and sucrose—simple sugars—send a “help is on the way” signal as soon as they hit an athlete’s mouth, and make blood sugar levels quickly rise. During sustained exercise, like a marathon, muscles easily put that sugar to use. But in work like firefighting or military operations, where effort may be more sporadic and over a longer period of time, the body needs more.

“You don’t want to use simple sugars as a food source all day long,” Ruby says. “If you’re in a rest break during a work day and you eat, the blood sugar goes up, the insulin levels go up and then your break is over. … You feel sluggish and wonder, ‘Why am I bonking?’”

Ruby suggests that the Omnibar’s complex mix of ingredients solves this problem. Using meat as a base gives the bar several advantages. Fats from almond butter and beef, mixed with carbohydrates, also slow digestion.

“When you eat a mixed diet it takes longer to digest, and the energy trickles into the body,” he says.

This long-term approach is more useful in the stop-and-go environment of a 12-hour fire shift—or a day spent backpacking, bike touring, rock climbing or any other outdoor activity that alternates between breaks and exertion. Ruby notes that this pattern happens to mimic the daily grind for busy mothers, delivery drivers and baristas.

“We’re not just some hard-core energy bar,” says Anthony Krolczyk, the company’s sales and marketing director. “We’re the weekend warriors. We work hard all day and then we want to have fun.”

Carla Cox, a nutritionist and specialist in sports dietetics at Western Montana Clinic, praises many of Omnibar’s attributes, but isn’t so quick to discount other energy bars on the market. She puts no stock in the sugar–crash theory, and believes the Omnibar offers the same nutritional benefits as other bars containing carbohydrates and protein, regardless of whether the protein source is whey, soy or meat.

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To her, Omnibar’s greatest asset is its minimal processing. Cox says that the fewer additives go into a bar, and the less its ingredients are processed, the more phytonutrients—beneficial chemicals from plants—are available to the eater.

“Nutritionally, it’s not so different from other bars,” Cox says. “But it’s good that it’s locally made, and if people think it tastes better, well, that’s fine.”

Cox touches on an important part of the Omnibar strategy: taste. The company has tested its product extensively in an effort to deliver complex, savory flavors and a moist texture that stacks up favorably against competitors. Again, Ruby says, meat offers the company a distinct advantage.

“Meat takes us down a different path as far as flavor,” he says. “It’s the foundation of meal-oriented flavors instead of dessert time, all the time.”

Omnibar is counting on its mix of flavor, fuel for working muscles and locally sourced ingredients to make a mark in the industry. When it comes down to it, Krolczyk says, the strategy isn’t all that complicated.

“Cooper and Brent made a bar [to fit their lifestyle],” he says. “This is for us and for people like us.”

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