Meet the Makers: Allison and Seth Wright, Energy Bar Makers

Meet the Makers: Allison and Seth Wright, Energy Bar Makers

“There are two types of people in the world,” says Allison Wright, founder of OWL Energy Bar in Brattleboro, Vermont. “When you make something and share it with your friends, and they say, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got to start selling these,’ the first type of people are like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, thanks so much. That's really nice.’ And then there's somebody like me. who's like, ‘Okay, challenge accepted.’”

Allison took up the challenge of turning OWL bars into a business in 2011. Her husband, Seth, had a great job working in a craft brewery, but Allison was, as Seth put it, “a very capable young woman having a hard time making a living” in rural Vermont.

So Allison turned to something she had loved since she was a kid: baking. “I think that food is such a great way to communicate who you are and what you want to see out there for other people to enjoy,” she says. She grew up around food service (among other things, her parents ran the Snack Shop at the Shelburne, VT Little League field), and when she was eight she got her entrepreneurial feet wet making and selling sandwiches to local businesses.

Seth and Allison met in a yoga class when both were living out west, in Idaho. Both had independently told their teacher that their spirit animal was an owl, so the teacher paired them up. “Once we got married,” Allison says, “owls have always been something that represents our connection.”

It was also out in Idaho that Allison started making bars for her friends. “I went into the kitchen, made my own version of energy bars based on what I could find in my own pantry… and made them for ourselves, but also just shared them with my friends.”

After the couple moved back to Vermont, it took about a year to formulate what became the “original” OWL energy bar, which was peanut butter, honey, fruits, nuts and seeds.

“We wanted to create a bar,” Allison says, “that had wholesome ingredients, no preservatives, no fillers, and obviously something that provided enough energy or calories to get you through your adventure.” She also wanted a bar that was smaller, more compact, that “could fit in the palm of your hand. You could put it in your pocket without it being bent and you could put it in your backpack and it's compact.”

It soon became clear through demos and testing, however, that “a lot of the customer base that I thought could have been enjoying our product couldn't because they were gluten-free. They had maybe a sensitivity or an allergy. And so we changed our recipes.”

The original ("gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, non-GMO, whole food, nutrient-dense") bar was the only product Allison offered for her first five years in business. “A lot of people tell me it tastes like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” she says. “It's very classic. Then we recognized, in talking to our customer base, that peanuts are a high allergen, and we wanted something that more people could tolerate. So… we developed our second flavor, which was the Cherry Almond. It's made with almond butter versus peanut butter.”

For their third bar, they decided to remove the honey to appeal to people on a strict vegan diet. “Although it's low glycemic,” Allison says, “and we're happy about using honey as opposed to a refined sugar, we recognized that, ‘Hey, what do we have here in Vermont? We've got maple syrup.’ So we then developed Maple Pecan in 2019.”

All of their bars have a very similar texture. “It's meant to be a soft bar,” Allison says, “but they're very substantial and nutrient-dense. So you're getting satiated.” Unlike much of the granola bar industry, OWL has never chased the protein count. A lot of people, Allison says, are “looking for 20 grams of protein per bar and they don't care how it got there. And to us, we have a bit of a conflict of interest with using soy, whey, additives, or powders that would boost that protein in an unnatural way. Instead we choose to use nuts, seeds, and nut butters for their natural protein content, which is easier to digest.”

Each season, OWL also introduces a new seasonal bar that Allison has dreamed up, guided by a simple principle: “Let's eat real food here folks. There's no need to put in crazy stuff. Let's put healthy food into our bodies that's seasonally appropriate and also a lot of fun. So we try to create something that's catchy, maybe eye-grabbing, maybe a little out there.”

Their summer release will be announced on June 21.

Seth joined the business in 2019, bringing to bear his experience working in beer production. “Certain aspects of this production were just too labor intensive,” he says. “To be successful, we needed to be profitable, and you can't just hike your prices really high to meet your costs.” So they have worked hard to make their production more efficient.

“Each year,” Seth says, “we make about 10 to 20% more bars than we made the previous year with the same amount of labor hours. We just keep finding more stuff that we can do to make it more efficient.”

“Yeah,” Allison says, “we've never, ever, ever taken it out on our recipe though. We've never cheapened up, never made it smaller. It was always important to me to make sure that that bar delivered, because how else are you going to stand out?”

“It's been great to be able to actually follow something I'm really passionate about as a career,” Allison says. “I think we love creating something. Musicians love creating music that people enjoy. We love creating food that people enjoy. It's something to show for the end of your day—that's really satisfying and probably something a lot of people in Vermont can appreciate.”

“There seems to be something about Vermont that embodies individual creativity…” Seth said.  

“And an appreciation for it,” Allison adds.

“Right,” Seth continues. “There's support from consumers, and if there wasn't consumer support of Vermont handcrafted products, then it wouldn't create an economy for people to pursue production of their handcrafted goods.”

Provided they are the challenge-accepting kind of person, that is.

The Vermont Maker Project

Telling stories about makers across the state of Vermont. Photographed and written by StoryWorkz. Learn more at vermontmade.org

Vermont makers wear Vermont Flannel.

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