Over five years ago professional cyclist, Jess Cerra ,and Cat 1 cyclist, John Abate, started making energy bars out of their kitchen for friends and fellow athletes. Little did they know that one day they would be packaging them and selling them in bike shops, coffee houses and other fitness locations. (See jojebar.com for a complete list of their retailers.) We caught up with Jess to learn more about why she started making bars and the ingredients that make JoJe’ bars special.
Your bars have been around for over 5 years now but for people who may not be familiar with them can you tell us what drove you to start making energy bars?
I actually started making them a long time ago when my really good friend Lesley Paterson was diagnosed with Lyme disease. Lesley and her husband got me into Xterra triathlons. Her husband was a professor of mine and he introduced me to Lesley and she taught me how to swim. I started racing and we became best friends. When she was diagnosed with Lyme disease she needed to start eating a gluten-free diet. Six years ago that wasn’t really the trend. The only bar offered was Bonk Breaker and they were hard to come by. I told Lesley that I thought I could figure out how to make a gluten-free bar and she asked me if I could make them taste like cookies because we would always eat cookies while we were riding.
At the same time I was fresh off my master’s degree in exercise physiology and there was a lot of research out (which is common knowledge now) that endurance athletes should eat higher fat diet while they were training because that type of diet utilizes the fuel source that they use most of the time. So I went to the store and I started buying all these ingredients. I would bake and bake and bake until I got the taste, the texture and all the macro nutrients right. I cut each batch into 24 pieces and divided all the macro nutrients by 24 to figure out what each bar had. I kept doing this until I came up with a recipe we really liked. Our friends liked them, and other people started ordering bars from me. Lots of people would ask if I could bake a pan for them. When we would travel and race for Xterra I would bring people bars. Then people started having me ship them to them all over the country.
During this time I started dating John Abate who is now just my friend and business partner. I was pretty much taking over his kitchen. I had pans all over the place and he was like Jess I think you have a business and I am going to find a good kitchen for you to bake in. Through the research of kitchens we found one called co-packer. They basically take your recipe and work with you to bake it for you. They already have the ingredients. They cut and package the bars. They find all the ingredients and they already have the gluten-free certification. Once we found co-packer we just started making the bars and we eventually named it Harmony Bars because that is what it was to us – harmonious food that is real and delicious. But then we ran into some trade mark issues with that name and then we changed the name to JoJe’.
Is there any backstory with how you came up with the new name JoJe´?
We thought of a lot of names and we had a trademarking attorney who was helping us and they all just got kicked back. Over a year ago I was at the USA National Cycling Road Race World Championships with my teammate and one of my best friends, Allie Dragoo. We were just laying in bed with the thesaurus on the computer just going through names and names and names and running the quick trademark check. And she said what about JoJe and I said like goji berry and she said no like John and Jess. I loved it! I called John and said we finally figured out a name and he hated it. He said no that’s dumb no one will understand that. So we kept looking but kept it in the back of our minds. After searching and searching for months he was like what about that name Allie came up with. What if we put an accent and made it JoJe´ like your name. So we put an accent over it and submitted it and it came back that we could use that name. So it was pretty much Allie who came up with the name and we ended up having the logo made and as we saw the logo and the story of it progress we were like I think people will get on board with this – it is unique and people will understand the story. People can also find our story on the back of the wrapper.
I know you said the bars were gluten-free but can you tell me more about the ingredients? Any signature ingredients?
All of the bars are either peanut butter or almond butter based. Actually they are all almond butter based except for the peanut butter chocolate chip. That is where the healthy fats are coming from. Each bar has add-ins. We try our best to source the non-GMO ingredients. We decided at first not to pay for the Non-GMO logo because it is really, really expensive. But we have checked out our ingredients so we say our ingredients are non-GMO on the packaging. A lot of smaller companies are doing it that way right now to start. But what I think makes our bars unique is they all have the nut butter base and then we use gluten-free oats and other gluten-free flour components and we use honey and brown rice sweetener to sweeten them to get the combination of the lower glycemic and higher glycemic sugars. That combined with the fat content is why the bars work so well. If you eat a bar just high in sugar you feel that spike and it almost makes you more hungry. So that is a big component of the bars. The different flavors is what makes them unique like the white chocolate coconut and our new flavor pancakes and bacon. We went through four rounds of testing making this smoke and maple to make it taste like pancakes and bacon. It is our add-in ingredients that make our bars special.
When you changed the name and the packaging of the bars did the recipe change?
The recipe has not changed at all. The only thing that has ever changed is taking it from the kitchen at home to packaging. We went through a big process of taking the bars to a lab and having the water content tested and to make sure we could come up with a product that didn’t have any preservatives even natural preservatives that could remain moist and shelf stable.
And what is the shelf-life?
The shelf-life is 9 months.
You are also a pro cyclist for TWENTY16. How do you balance training, racing and traveling with your business?
I think I function better when I have a lot going on; I just make it happen. John is really flexible with my schedule. Because he races at the elite master’s level he understands the demands of racing so he really picks up the slack on the day-to-day business side of things when I’m gone or in Europe for a month. So he is driving the ship at that point in time and I communicating over g-mail and my main role is working with the kitchen and the ingredients and the recipes and everything. But I am always on email and doing our social media. I also schedule my training around working. If we have a meeting in the morning I ride in the afternoon. I have always had to work while I am racing professionally so for me it wasn’t that hard of a transition. I came into cycling with an education and a career. It is not like I came up through cycling as a junior and then started working so doing both didn’t seem very foreign to me.
I have one last question for you. Which JoJe´ bar is your favorite?
That is such a hard question. I think that the peanut butter chocolate chip is probably my favorite flavor. It is a classic one that is always the my go-to.
Thank you for your time Jess. I look forward to trying your the new pancakes and bacon flavor!
To order JoJe´ bars visit www.jojebars.com