Spokane Journal of Business

A healthy buzz at BumbleBar

Spokane Valley manufacturer goes lean, to add machine that doubles production

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-—LeAnn Bjerken
BumbleBar Inc. owners Glenn and Liz Ward say the 13-year-old company has produced about 2.5 million of its bars so far this year.
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-—BumbleBar Inc.
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Spokane Valley-based gluten-free snack bar maker BumbleBar Inc. is abuzz with new growth this year, as it moves into a leaner model of manufacturing and works to expand both its own product line and co-packing relationships.

“Our focus right now is on lean manufacturing, and as we continue to get better at these processes and improve our products, that naturally leads us toward more growth,” says Glenn Ward, who co-owns and co-operates the business with his wife and company founder Liz.

Ward says the company purchased a new machine in February that’s expected to ease its manufacturing processes and double its production capacity.

Called a bar extrusion line, or extruder, the machine has yet to arrive. However, BumbleBar received a temporary model last week that it plans to begin using in production this week, he says.

“This will allow us to measure more precise portions of ingredients, as well as moving the product directly to packaging, which eliminates any touching and further improves quality and safety,” Ward claims.

He says the machine is the largest investment the company has made in production machinery and is a key part of its goal to move toward more lean manufacturing practices.

“Most of our other machines are what we call slab lines or rotary molders that form the bar in a mold and deposit it out onto the belt,” he says. “That method is fine for our seed-based product, but not always as accurate for some of our fruit paste products, which is what the extruder will help to measure more precisely.”

While the company’s current machines produce about 70 bars each minute, Ward says the new machine will be twice as fast.

“In the production process, some of what you use is inevitably wasted in defective bars,” he says. “This system is not only more efficient, but it also wastes less product in the process.”

Ward says the company expects to produce over 5 million units of product this year. “Over the last three years, our production has increased by about 1 million units per year,” he says. 

While BumbleBar has a staff of 18, including the owners, Ward says most of the company’s production is automated.

“We recently cut our staff by about five people, but because of our new lean production methods, we’re still producing the same amount of product,” he says.

“Part of it is that it’s difficult to find good workers. But the larger part is that in order to improve quality and keep costs low, we need to automate more processes, because automation is the only way to guarantee precision.”

Glenn Ward says that 85 percent of the company’s revenues come from product sales, while the remaining 15 percent comes from development services it provides to other companies.

“Of that 85 percent, only about 3 percent comes from our BumbleBar-branded products, while the remaining portion is co-packing and private-label income from clients,” he says.

Co-packing is a term for manufacturing and packaging a customer’s proprietary formulation, while private-labeling refers to packaging a BumbleBar product under another customer’s name.

The company’s main co-packing clients include Protein Puck, Verb Energy Co, Coffee Bar, IQ Bar, and Dean & Deluca.

Although he declined to disclose the company’s annual revenues, Ward did say last month’s revenue was up 40 percent compared with the year-earlier month.

 “Every year, we plan for between 30 and 40 percent growth. This year, we plan for about 30 percent,” he says.

In addition to BumbleBar manufacturing its own products, and its work as a co-packing partner for other companies, Ward says the company also serves as a kind of “bar incubator” for new brands and entrepreneurs.

“We’re often a resource for new companies, helping them test recipes, and plan for packaging or branding strategies,” he says. “In the last 20 years, we’ve probably helped to develop 50-some new brands. In just the past three years, we’ve tested about 10 new concepts in Liz’s idea kitchen.”

While the company’s products are made here in Spokane, and the materials it uses in packaging come from local and regional sources, Ward says the ingredients it uses come from organic farmers all over the world.

“Organic farming is a relatively small marketplace,” he says. “Our ingredient purchases go to support many social and environmental projects, and they often have stories that lead to further support and recognition.”

The Wards say BumbleBar follows a concept called People Profit Planet, also known as the triple bottom line, in which all of its business practices are geared toward benefiting social, financial, and environmental goals.

Liz Ward asserts, “I started this company because I wanted to make a positive difference in the world. I’ve always enjoyed food and feeding people, so it’s thrilling to know we’re putting out a healthy, plant-based food that’s also benefiting society and the environment. I can’t think of another company that is as mission-based as ours.” 

Adds Glenn Ward, “We see the impact our products and manufacturing methods have on children and families around the world. In being the highest quality manufacturer we’re able to be, we’re also looking to build a lasting legacy.”

The Wards founded BumbleBar Inc. in 1995 in a small kitchen on Vashon Island, Wash., where Liz Ward created the organic, gluten-free energy bar. By 2001, the company had moved to a larger production space in Tacoma, Wash., eventually moving to Spokane in 2003.

BumbleBar’s first Spokane location was a 3,000-square-foot space that soon grew to 12,000 square feet in the Spokane Business & Industrial Park, at 3808 N. Sullivan. In 2015, the company moved to its current 36,000-square-foot space at 3014 N. Flora Road. 

It’s here that BumbleBar makes gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian snack bars and cookies. Its branded products currently include BumbleBars, JunoBars, and Junior Bars.

The company uses two main ingredients for its bars—sesame seed and flaxseed—and it promotes the bars as organic and ethically sourced.

Ward says BumbleBars come in 14 different flavors and sell for $1.79 each. She says the company’s products can be purchased online, as well as at Super 1 Foods and Yoke’s Foods Inc. supermarkets, and Thomas Hammer Coffee Roasting Co. and other coffee shops.

“We’ve produced 2.5 million units so far this year in our own branded product and co-packed products combined, compared to about 4 million units last year,” she says.

Liz Ward completed the U.S. Small Business Association’s Emerging Leader’s Initiative program, an entrepreneurship education and training course for executives of small companies poised for growth.

“As part of that course, I created the growth plan that we’ve begun using here at BumbleBar,” she says.

Her plan included standardizing business processes, adding new machinery to make production more efficient, enabling the company to improve service to its current clients, and potentially to expand its own brand’s offerings, she says.

“This plan is a way of smoothing out almost everything we do here,” she says. “We started implementing elements of it even as I was still working on it in the summer of 2016 and have been adding to it since.”

Looking ahead, the Wards say they’re focused on making sure the company scales well and continues to meet the needs of its clients. However, they also hope to expand BumbleBar beyond simply bar and cookie products.

Liz Ward says, “Overall our thinking is that standardizing all of our business processes and implementing (lean methods) at every level of our organization will enable us to meet those goals.”

Glenn Ward adds, “It’s a delicate balance. We’d like to expand our Bumble brand. At the same time the private-label side of the business has grown a lot, and we have lots of exciting concepts to develop and test.”

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken covers health care at the Journal of Business. A Minnesota native and cat lover, she enjoys beachside vacations and writing poetry. LeAnn has worked for the Journal since 2015.

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