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It seems like everyone has their go-to healthy granola bar these days, thanks to brands like Luna Bar, Clif, and Kind creating options that are perfect for people on the go (and aren’t we all anymore?). But there’s a new competitor on the market offering up gluten-free, GMO-free, and Kosher bars that blend the founders’ own heritage with top-quality ingredients for delicious—and nutritious—snacking.
Hůga Bar was founded in St. Louis in 2015, starting out at CIC 4240 before transitioning to a home office. Soon, they’ll move into an office with warehouse space in West County. Its creators, Luis Rivero and Luis Mendoza, are both from Venezuela. Rivero originally moved from Caracas with his wife in 2003 to attend grad school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then worked for DuPont in Philadelphia and eventually St. Louis for almost 10 years. In 2014, he left his job to start Hůga Bar–an entrepreneurial gamble with the five kids he raises with his wife.
“As a marketing manager at DuPont Nutrition & Health, I saw so many bar companies with products that tasted poorly, [were] filled with artificial ingredients, and loaded with sugar,” says Rivero.
The resulting product isn’t your normal granola bar: Instead, it showcases and celebrates the food culture that Rivero and Mendoza grew up with in Venezuela—pulling in some of Mendoza’s wife Louisa’s old family recipes, “along with some other concepts that our friends and family loved,” says Rivero. “We wanted to make a nutrition bar with the flavors we as founders grew up eating—flavors like dulce de leche, the classic South American caramel sauce, the amazing combination of hazelnut and chocolate, or the traditional Spanish turrón,” Rivero says. However, nutrition was also important to him. “Hůga Bars needed to taste great, yet they needed to be nutritious as well,” he adds. “So we packed them with whey protein, prebiotic fiber, and other superfoods like quinoa and flaxseed.”
The Right Ingredients
A team only works with the right dynamic, and Rivero and Mendoza have a long history together. “Mendoza and I are great friends, and we grew up on the same street in Venezuela,” says Rivero. “We’ve been friends since we were kids. We have very different professional backgrounds, which helps to complement our way of thinking and tackling challenges from different perspectives. This ultimately results in a better outcome than two people with the same views or perspective. We also have a common passion for good food and drinks.”
Rivero also credits his background as providing him with the skills that he personally draws upon to keep the company going—and growing. Engineering is a field much like entrepreneurship where “problem-solving is exciting and fun,” he says, also citing his MBA for developing his marketing skills. “More importantly, growing up in a country with tremendous uncertainty in all aspects of life, including political, social, and economic [challenges] helps you deal with uncertainty with an even keel,” Rivero adds. “The startup life is a rollercoaster where uncertainty and ambiguity is present at all times.”
But setting is also important, and St. Louis has a wealth of resources that have benefited the cofounders personally and professionally. “The St. Louis startup scene is very dynamic and it’s exciting to be a part of it,” says Rivero, adding that “we’ve also benefited from the support that St. Louis Mosaic Project has provided us.”
The Mosaic Project is a regional initiative from the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and the World Trade Center St. Louis that helps immigrants connect to employment and entrepreneurial opportunities in St. Louis—and it hopes to make St. Louis the fastest-growing metro area for immigration by 2020. It invited Hůga Bar to showcase at its annual event, where they met a reporter who wrote a story about them in the Post-Dispatch, giving the team some initial early exposure.
St. Louis is also where the founders’ families are, plus: “St. Louisans are very supportive of local products, and local grocers support small and local businesses,” Rivero says. “So for us, it was logical to launch here and leverage our network.”
A Winning Recipe
For only starting up two years ago, the company has gained some serious traction. Starting out at CIC introduced the founders to networking opportunities with other startups, as well as to Venture Café, with which they’re still active. In 2016, the company was an Arch Grants finalist.
Networking has been critical to the company’s success: One of the founders’ biggest challenges was breaking into the premium grocery market in St. Louis and actually getting their product on shelves. “Grocery buyers are very busy, and we couldn’t get through after more than a dozen phone calls and emails,” explains Rivero. “Finally, through the Mosaic Project, we were able to make the connection, and we made the sale. The power of the network is tremendous, so growing our network has been critical to reach more people.” A recent major win? Getting into the local Whole Foods stores.
Rivero has since given back to the startup community through his involvement with the Missouri Venture Forum as a member of its marketing committee.
Of course, there’s more ahead for the company. Although bars are made on the West Coast, they’re still searching for a Midwest manufacturer that can meet their strict gluten-free and food safety standards. And there’s more to expect from the bars themselves: “We are looking at novel ingredients and new flavors to further differentiate ourselves,” says Rivero. “We’re also looking at international opportunities in Europe and other parts of Latin America.”