Three years ago, Brooks Thostenson and Kyle Hawari were 20-something ski bums working the night janitor shift at a local gym. Today, they run Taos Mountain Energy Bars — a rapidly growing company based in Taos with retailers in 27 states.
Like countless local businesses, Taos Mountain Bars says it would have never got off the ground without a boost from the Taos County Economic Development Corp.
Taos County Economic Development Corp., better known as TCEDC, is a Taos nonprofit that aims to foster local food systems and protect traditional agriculture in Northern New Mexico. A big part of that effort has been the Taos Food Center — a community kitchen that gives budding businesses a certified place to make and package food for retail sale. The center also offers classes on how to develop products and navigate the complex world of government regulation.
For Thostenson and Hawari, TCEDC was key to making their business idea a reality. They took a week-long class at TCEDC, which included presentations from local businesses that had found a niche in the local market.
“It was a cool intro into the whole scene,” Hawari says.
After the class ended, the young entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to cater to the outdoorsy types around Taos and came up with the idea of selling energy bars. They took the knowledge from the TCEDC class, and put it into practice. They developed recipes, cooked some bars, and found retailers to start carrying their product.
The ambitious duo was soon spending a lot of its time at the kitchen. Hawari said they worked out a flat rate with TCEDC of less than $200 a month, which covered their rent and gave them access to all the equipment they needed at the time.
“They make it so affordable to get started,” Hawari said.
Hawari says the operation was primitive. Trays of bars were cut with a two-handed cheese cutter the guys found at the kitchen The individual bars were hand-packaged with a foot-pedal heat sealer that took hours to do a few hundred bars.
The bars first popped up at Cid’s Food Market and at local outdoor gear shops.
As the pair honed their sales pitch, they managed to get a foot in the door with bigger accounts like Ohori’s Coffee and Whole Foods. Within a year they had retailers in Taos, Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
Realizing that volume was key to growing the business, the company decided it was time to make the leap from the community kitchen and find its own space.
At TCEDC, Hawari and Thostenson could make 384 bars per production run. Today, they’re doing over 6,000 per run, Hawari says.
Hawari said the low overhead at TCEDC meant the startup could afford to get off the ground, establish some solid accounts, then go seek investors. Without TCEDC, Hawari says convincing someone to put money into the business would have been much more challenging.
“It was the incubator for proving the idea and giving us that foundation to really step out there and say ‘This product is going to work.’”
About two years later, the business is booming. The bars are made and packaged at a space on the south side of Taos. They found local craftsmen to build equipment to become more efficient, and they retrofitted a space to meet code without having to spend a fortune on rent.
In addition to Hawari and Thostenson, the business now has seven employees, a couple of which were recently hired to meet an increasing demand.
As Taos Mountain Energy Bars continues to grow, Hawari is quick to acknowledge the help TCEDC provided in the beginning. “We wouldn’t be here without them. It’s a great incubator and a great place to get started.”