Try telling Will Handke, Mike Steffan, Austin Hinkle, Ross Pomeroy, and Tom Johnson that friends shouldn't go into business together. The five 20-somethings grew up together in Mankato, MN, separated for college, then came back together in 2012 to bake up to 2,000 granola bars per week under the name Five Friends Food.
"When we were in high school, they used to call us the nerd herd because we played a lot of video games," Johnson said.
We think the new name (and pursuit) is a better fit.
The idea for their product, the Fresh Bar, came from twins Ross Pomeroy and Will Handke (yes, they have different last names), who felt like there weren't enough options for fresh granola bars with an "out of the oven" texture. Pomeroy, a former fitness instructor, began experimenting with recipes in 2009 and Handke came on board to handle the business side of things shortly after. The four varieties of Fresh Bars -- pumpkin carrot pecan, chocolate peanut butter banana, cherry pear walnut, and apple banana almond raisin -- are now sold at over 40 locations in and around the Twin Cities. Pomeroy said a maple blueberry flavor is currently in the works.
On Wednesday, Hot Dish met up with the friends at Kindred Kitchen in Northeast Minneapolis, where they meet twice a week from 6 p.m. to midnight to bake bars, package, and watch "The West Wing."
Hot Dish: Tell us about the friends behind Five Friends Food.
Tom Johnson: There's five of us. Will and Ross are twin brothers. They're basically the founders of the company. We all grew up together in Mankato [and] went to the same high school. We all kind of diverged in college... but then afterwards, Will came back to Minneapolis for a job at Target and Ross was back in town for Americorps.
HD: Er, which twin is which?
Johnson: Will's shoes are really dirty.
HD: What are your respective duties?
Johnson: Will does this full time. The rest of us have jobs on the side or go to school and Will, this is what he does. He's [in charge of] keeping the books and ordering the stuff and looking for new cooking spaces. The biggest thing we all do right now is just come in here and bake, but as the business is growing we kind of have new needs. I've been taking on some of the marketing. Like I'm working on a project right now -- I'm redesigning the boxes. Austin Hinkle: I'm the dry mix guy. I get the dry mix ready for everything... and I scoop the bars into the pan.
What are your day jobs?
Johnson: Ross Pomeroy, he's the editor at Real Clear Science. Austin Hinkle, he works at White House Custom Color. I think he's a photo tech. Mike Steffan, we call him "Stiffy," he works at the Urban Debate League.
HD: Where did the idea for the Fresh Bar come from?
Johnson: Well, I thought of everything. I wanted to do something to help Will stay off the streets, 'cause he gets in fights and stuff... No, the story I heard is that Ross used to do a lot of personal training and he started monkeying around with baking bars to help his clients and to help himself -- like a good nutritious food that he could take with him and recommend to people. He did the first development of Fresh Bar flavors and started making them for himself. So Ross kind of came up with the recipe and Will and Ross together came up with this idea for the business.
HD: What did you base the recipe off of?
Ross Pomeroy: It started, actually, I was searching online -- it was sort of an amalgamation of the stuff I had found. The original bar I made is so much different than the one we have now. It's not even close to being the same. The first generation was made back in '09.
HD: What were your priorities for the bar itself?
Pomeroy: I just wanted it to be cheap because I was tired of paying a lot of money for Clif Bars and stuff, and I wanted it to be fresh. Most of the common granola bars are dried out.
HD: Is that why your bars are refrigerated?
Will Handke: Fundamentally, the biggest difference between ours and everyone else's is the dedication to keeping everything as fresh as possible. That's the easy way to put it, but that means we use stuff like real pureed fruit, we don't dry the bar out. Usually the way you get like a Nature's Valley bar to sit on the shelf for a year is you cook it until nothing is alive in it anymore. So we kind of take this angle where we don't dry it out all the way, so you get a much softer texture, like it just came out of the oven.
HD: How often do you come here to work?
Johnson: We bake at least twice a week, probably from 6 to midnight.
HD: How many stores currently carry the Fresh Bar?
Johnson: I think it's like 40. We're in all the Lunds and Byerly's and then we're in pretty much every co-op. We're doing trials in Whole Foods and Kowalski's right now.
HD: How many bars do you make at once?
Handke: We'll make 1,200 tonight and we'll probably make 2,000 to 3,000 in a week. Johnson: So that's like three or four hundred packages. Handke: Each package has three bars.
What do you listen to while you're baking?
Johnson: Eiffel 65. Macho Man Randy Savage. Austin is a huge Macho Man fan. He used to make us listen to a lot of podcasts.
HD: How old are all of you?
Johnson: I'm 24 Hinkle: Tom's the baby Johnson: Will and Ross are 26. Austin and Mike are 25.
HD: Where's the best place to eat in Mankato?
Johnson: Pagliai's. Handke: Pagliai's. Hinkle: Probably Pagliai's. Johnson: It's a pizza place. Handke: The best place to eat at is Pagliai's. Do they have the best food? Probably not. Johnson: Uh, Will's on his own.
HD: What's the best band to come out of Mankato?
HD: What are your favorite video games?
Handke: Probably World of Warcraft. I don't play it anymore! Johnson: I actually never had a video game console when I was a kid. I like Chip's Challenge. Hinkle: Probably my all-time favorite video game is Everquest. Pomeroy: World of Warcraft is probably my favorite
HD: Ooh, the twins have the same favorite!
Handke and Pomeroy: Surprise.