Vol. 127 - NO. 39

Blog Startup CPG

SINCE 2019

On A Mission to Be

Ashley Nickelsen is the Founder & Chief Snack Officer of B.T.R. Bar, a brand on a mission to end mindless snacking one purpose-driven ingredient at a time.

It all started as a simple idea in a hospital cafeteria

Over 5 years ago, both my parents were diagnosed with rare forms of cancer (my mom with a leiomyosarcoma and my dad with appendiceal cancer). It shook our lives. I became their primary caretaker. Between ongoing doctor’s appointments and weekly chemotherapy, we were running all over New York City. And our nutrition was suffering. We were inhaling sugar-laden bars and bites out of hospital vending machines with ingredients we could barely pronounce. I look back on those days and I still can’t fathom how hospitals could serve such junk.

I took to the kitchen to create something better. With my background in biochemistry and food studies, I started making these cinnamon swirl and dark chocolate protein bites with no added sugar, powered by plant protein, and with superfoods & adaptogens like maca and cordyceps, before they were “cool” or “buzzy.”

I started to bring these functional snacks to the hospital, and my parents loved them. The doctors, nurses, other caretakers – everyone became obsessed. The taste, macros, no added sugar, it was the trifecta. My parents could barely stomach any protein or healthy fats, so I knew the texture and taste had to be just right. I relied on a nut butter cookie dough like texture to get the job done.

When my parents passed away, I tabled the idea on a quest for community, stability, and purpose. I joined a supplement start-up rooted in the philosophy that food is medicine. I was the first full-time hire and brought the company millions in revenue.

A little reflection goes a long way

During the pandemic, I started questioning everything. Was this my purpose? Was I making my parents proud? With the world experiencing so much loss and uncertainty in 2020, I was reminded of what it felt like when my parents were sick. I looked around me. And 5 years later, the snack space consisted of more of the same. Little to no plant-based options. Protein bars with some better-for-you ingredients, but loaded with inflammatory gums, sugar alcohols, and “natural flavors.” I was tired of making sacrifices, of settling for bars that had 1 or 2 questionable ingredients because “that’s what you get with on-the-go snacks.” This was my moment.

Making it happen

I dusted off my recipes, got to work interviewing co-packers, and the rest is history. I named the company B.T.R. (an acronym that stands for “be BOLD, TENACIOUS & RESILIENT”). This was my parents’ personal mantra, and a way to incorporate their legacy into the company forever. We soft-launched at the end of 2020 with a very small test market on Instagram. We got tons of incredible feedback, and we iterated quickly. By February 2021, all of our current recipes were ready to go, and we had built up a ton of traction.

Now we’re selling thousands of B.T.R. Bars every day on our website, Amazon, and in our 100+ brick & mortar locations including all Central Markets across Texas.

Learning lessons

My greatest learning lesson through it all? Get out of your own way, Ashley. As a perfectionist, it can be a challenge to overcome your own standards and expectations. Remember to get out of your head – write the email, send the cold LinkedIn message, film the TikTok, ask the question. Embrace it all, tell your story, and make people understand why they NEED your product.

I’ve leaned into Instagram and TikTok as storytelling platforms. Our story isn’t sexy. It’s real. It’s raw. It’s inspiring. I want to show the world that they can feel good, they can be BOLD, TENACIOUS & RESILIENT by fueling their bodies with snacks that are better for them. Snacks that have their back. We’re truly reimagining the classic vending machine. And every day, I have the honor of sharing my parents’ story and legacy with the world

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