Meet the geniuses responsible for creating the foods you just can't get enough of
Clif Kit's Organic
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Kit Crawford, Napa Valley, CA
Lightbulb moment: Crawford and her husband, Gary, co-founded Clif Bar & Company in 1992 and went on to create Luna Bar, so it was a natural next step for her to create her own line of snack bars in 2012. "Kit's is really a reflection of my lifelong love for organic food, and I wanted a way for everyone to be able to enjoy convenient, simple snacks made from just a handful of organic ingredients, like fruits, nuts, and sea salt," Crawford says.
What's in a name: "Kit's Organic is named after me because it represents my passion for organic food, my active lifestyle, and my experience with sustainable farming, which I inherited from my parents and now share with my husband," Crawford says.
Up next: "My hope for Clif Bar and Kit's Organic is that in 20 years we will be as fresh and open to possibilities as we are today," Crawford says. The company strives to do better against five "bottom lines"—sustaining their business, brands, people, community, and the planet—and she believes they'll make significant progress toward each goal in 20 years.
Mary's Gone Crackers
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Mary Waldner, 62, Paradise, CA
Lightbulb moment: After being diagnosed with celiac disease in 1994, Waldner had trouble finding good-tasting gluten-free products, so she started baking her own wheat-free crackers. "I'd always had an interest in healthy cooking and baking, so I enjoyed experimenting with gluten-free ingredients like brown rice, quinoa, flaxseeds, and sesame seeds," she says. Friends who tried her creations raved about them, and on New Year's Day 1999, Waldner decided on a whim to start manufacturing them on a large scale. Her husband, Dale, supported her decision, and together they started marketing and selling the crackers.
What's in a name: While meeting with a group of female colleagues, Waldner was trying to brainstorm a creative name for her fledgling company. "Since I had gone a little mad during the start-up process, one of my friends suggested 'Mary's Cracking Up' or 'Mary's Gone Crackers,'" Waldner recalls. "I immediately loved the name because it means something: It may look like I'd gone a little crazy, but my giant leap of faith ended up working."
Up next: Since the company's inception, Mary's has expanded beyond crackers to offer more snacks, including pretzel sticks and cookies, and all are both gluten-free and vegan. "We also have a killer graham cracker coming out later this year," Waldner says.
Justin's Nut Butters
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Justin Gold, 35, Boulder, CO
Lightbulb moment: As a vegetarian and avid outdoorsman, Gold relied on a lot of nut butters for protein to power him through his frequent hikes and mountain bike rides. Frustrated with a lack of good options, he started formulating his own nut butters in his kitchen and selling jars at the local farmers' market. Then a game-changing idea came to him on a long mountain bike ride: "I was sick of eating bars and gels, and just wanted a packet of almond or peanut butter," he recalls. The resulting squeeze pack he created put the company on the map with national distribution in Whole Foods Market and Starbucks.
What's in a name: "When I first starting concocting nut butters, my roommates were constantly eating my 'experiments,' so out of necessity, I started writing 'Justin's' on the jar, just like any disgruntled roommate, and it stuck."
Youthful misstep: In the early days, Gold created a peanut butter specially formulated for dogs that contained no salt, sugar, or hydrogenated oils. "I thought naming it 'Doggie Style' would be a fun way to gain newsworthy exposure," he says. "Needless to say, we don't make that flavor anymore."
Up next: Justin's recently introduced a line of candy bars, available in milk chocolate peanut, dark chocolate peanut, or dark chocolate almond. Gold is happy with the company size at present, with 20 employees in the office who have diverse interests, activities, and roles. "But I'd like to double the company over the next few years while maintaining our work-lifestyle balance," he says. Expanding the employee roster is likely inevitable, considering Justin's sold an astounding 25 million squeeze packs and 1.6 million jars of nut butter last year alone.
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Lara Merriken, 45, Denver, CO
Lightbulb moment: While munching on a bag of trail mix during a hike in the Rockies one day, Merriken suddenly wondered why there wasn't a snack bar that contained simply fruit and nuts. "I ran down the mountain, rushed to my kitchen, took out my Cuisinart, and began experimenting," Merriken says. "I wanted to create flavors inspired by time-honored, traditional desserts, like cherry pie, apple pie, and banana bread." Yet her now-famous bars only sound indulgent: They're gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free, kosher, and vegan.
What's in a name: "We came up with a different name originally, but there was a trademark conflict," explains Merriken, who was apprehensive at first about putting her name on the product. "We added the umlaut to make it easier for people to pronounce my name—'Lahra,' similar to the 'a' in the word 'bar.'"
Up next: Merriken has gone from paying her family and friends to taste test her products to having Lärabar sold in stories nationwide and in dozens of flavors. The newest additions are über, a bar made from whole fruits and nuts, and ALT, a protein bar made with pea protein.
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Annie Withey, Hampton, CT
Lightbulb moment: As a college student in 1984, Withey developed Smartfood Popcorn in her Boston kitchen. A few years later, the popcorn's signature white cheddar cheese powder gave her the inspiration for Annie's. "One day it occurred to me that there was no macaroni and cheese product on the market using an all-natural white cheddar cheese powder free of artificial ingredients or preservatives," Withey says. "As soon as I mixed together the first batch of Annie's with the powder, milk, butter, and elbow macaroni, I knew the recipe was a winner."
What's in a name: Withey was actually uncomfortable using her name. "However, I realized the name 'Annie' is familiar and friendly, and there is a real Annie, so it makes sense," she explains.
Up next: The development team at Annie's is trusted to keep coming up with new, tasty recipes, while Withey herself is more focused on the company's goal to make positive changes for humanity and the environment, a mission that Annie's has championed since it was first incorporated in 1989. "From the start, we have contributed to a wide range of organizations, including youth camps, sustainable farms, and school gardens," Withey says. "Good ethics coupled with good business is possible."
Brad's Raw Foods
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Brad Gruno, 54, Bucks County, PA
Lightbulb moment: After the 2001 dot-com crash, Gruno, a former telecommunications executive, found himself out of work, overweight, and depressed. To get his life back on track, he moved back home to Pennsylvania, where he began to frequent a raw food restaurant. After learning more about the raw food lifestyle, Gruno decided to adopt a 100-percent raw diet. Within three months, he shed 40 pounds. "I started to glow, and I felt so great and clear," he says. While Gruno loved eating raw, he missed the crunch and texture of his old diet, so he dehydrated raw vegetables in his garage to make chips. In 2009, Gruno started selling the chips at a local farmers' market, then expanded to four more markets and later a local grocery store. In 2010, he began selling his products to Whole Foods Markets nationwide, and since then Brad's Raw Foods has grown exponentially into the $15-million-a-year business it is today.
What's in a name: Gruno settled on using his first name for the company because it sounds "common and wholesome," he says. His sister, an artist, hand-carved a stamp with the brand's logo, which has kept the same look since.
Up next: In addition to his signature raw veggie chips, crackers, and dog treats (made from leftover kale stems), Brad's Raw Foods just launched a new line of onion rings. Next January Gruno is publishing a book about the "80/20" lifestyle he follows: "I eat raw salads, green juices, and smoothies 80 percent of the time, but otherwise I just eat what I want, within reason," he explains. Gruno is also currently scouting locations for a new factory, which he envisions as a production plant and an educational facility. "I have a big vision for the company—I believe we can be the leaders in the raw food industry," he says.
Photo: Roy Cox Photography
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Andy and Rachel Berliner, 66 and 60, co-founders, and daughter, Amy Berliner, 25, Sonoma County, CA
Lightbulb moment: When Rachel was pregnant with Amy, she asked Andy to pitch in with the cooking. The Berliners had always eaten healthy, nutritious foods, so looking for a convenient option, Andy shopped in the freezer aisle of a natural food store. "Let's just say I wasn't impressed with what he brought home for dinner that night," Rachel says. "We realized there was a need for healthful, convenient foods that also taste delicious."
What's in a name: After months of trying to dream up the perfect name, one night Amy's grandmother literally dreamt of "Amy's Kitchen." "Right away we knew it was perfect," Andy says, "since it was named after our daughter, who was the inspiration behind the business."
Growing up "Amy": "It wasn't until I was about 12 that I realized how strange it was that I could go into any grocery store and read about my birth on the back of a package," Amy says. Today she works in sales and marketing for the brand, which intersects her passions for health, organic agriculture, sustainability, and delicious food, she says. "It's incredibly lucky that I'm named after a company that I'm so proud of for how much good it does in the world and that aligns so well with my own passions."
Up next: What started as a small family business now employs about 1,700 people who produce more than 250 products, including soups, sauces, wraps, desserts, and entrees sold all over the world. Remarkably the Berliner's farmhouse in Petaluma remains much like it was 25 years ago. "We're still tasting everything regularly at our kitchen table—and it's the same table too!" says Rachel, adding that they plan to stick to the same strategy they've always followed: Listen to their consumers and intuition to create new products and ensure every product is made with the best ingredients and tastes fantastic.
Bob's Red Mill
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Bob Moore, 84, Portland, OR
Lightbulb moment: Moore, a lifelong entrepreneur, sold his first milling company in California to his sons in 1978 to enter seminary school in Oregon. One day while taking a walk, he happened to stumble upon an abandoned flour mill. "I got back in the milling business and stopped translating the Bible in Greek and Hebrew," Moore laughs. It's not total coincidence that he's in the health food industry, though: "I've had a longtime interest in nutrition, and particularly the importance of whole grains, thanks to my wife Charlee," he says. "We both strongly feel there's a need for Americans to return to eating whole grains rather than white flour."
What's in a name: Moore was skeptical to name the company after himself. "I thought it wasn't original enough," he says. But others convinced him that with his passion for whole grains, it was logical to literally put his face on the brand.
Bob's secret to staying young: "Every morning when I wake up at 6:30 or 7, I eat a bowl of our thick rolled oats, sometimes topped with flaxseed meal and banana," says Moore, who still works full-time with no intent to slow down. "This breakfast has kept me healthy for many, many years, and I'd recommend it to anyone who will listen."
Up next: Bob's Red Mill recently developed a new line called Grains of Discovery, which includes lesser-known whole grains such as amaranth, farro, kamut, millet, and sorghum. The company wants to spread the word about these unique ingredients and encourage people to cook with them. Most of all, Moore wants the company to continue to focus on whole grains. "I believe whole grains are the future. My intent is to make them readily available to the entire world to eat at every meal of the day," he says. With Bob's products available in 71 countries today, achieving his goal doesn't seem too far-fetched.
Peet's Coffee & Tea
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Alfred Peet, 1920—2007
Lightbulb moment: Born in Holland in 1920, Peet worked odd jobs in his father's small coffee roastery as a boy and later worked in the coffee import business in Europe. In 1955, Peet arrived in America, where he found the coffee tasted bland, weak, and nothing like the rich brews he was used to drinking. He realized that high-altitude coffee beans from places such as Costa Rica, Guatemala, and East Africa weren't being imported to the U.S. Thanks to his relationships in the industry, Peet was able to establish connections to import these high-quality Arabica beans to America.
What's in a name: In 1966, Peet opened his first coffee shop in Berkeley, CA, which he simply but aptly called Peet's Coffee & Tea. It soon became a gathering place for a group of coffee devotees, who called themselves "Peetniks." In his store and the surrounding area, which became known as the Gourmet Ghetto, the artisan coffee movement in America began to gain ground.
Up next: Though Peet passed away in 2007, the company carries on its founder's legacy in all phases of production. "At Peet's, we continue to focus on his original tenets of sourcing, roasting, and freshness," says Debbie Kristofferson, vice president of brand and creative strategy. "We celebrate single-origin flavor, and blends are built to be greater than the sum of their parts."
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Barbara Jaffe, 59, California
Lightbulb moment: In 1971, 17-year-old Jaffe discovered her passion for baking and opened a bakery in Northern California using money intended to pay for college. Her early adoption of natural, whole foods positioned her at the forefront of the natural foods movement, which flourished in the free-spirited culture of the 1970s. Jaffe used only whole grains in her baked goods, believing that good health, family, and the kitchen table were the cornerstones of a good life. Her storefront start-up later expanded into the thriving wholesale business we know today that offers cereals, snack bars, cookies, crackers, and more.
What's in a name: Although Jaffe is no longer affiliated with the company, the bakery's original name still graces the packaging, which was updated this summer to depict a wooden kitchen table to emphasize the company's humble, homemade origins.
Up next: Despite growing so much, the brand stays true to its roots. "In the spirit of Barbara Jaffe, Barbara's is committed to providing great-tasting, wholesome, high-quality products with honest ingredients that meet or surpass our consumers' high standards," says Lizzie Bell, assistant brand manager.