MEET THE BRAND: Raising the Bar
thinkThin Products - High Protein, High Fiber and No Glutens
Hidden beneath nearly every pretty package in the grocery aisles at Sprouts is a good story about how that product came to be and the people who created it. There are quests-for-the-perfect-flavor, accidental discoveries, and mom-and-pop-hit-it-big stories aplenty. But there are few tales as interesting, and few people as compelling, as that of thinkThin® and its dynamic, entrepreneurial founder and CEO, Lizanne Falsetto.
thinkThin products live in the nutrition bar aisle, but they occupy a unique niche in between natural nutrition products and weight management products. They are really the only natural bars that have been specifically formulated with no sugar, or with very low sugar. So they deliver high protein, high fiber and no glutens, along with great flavor – but can still help you lose weight. Maybe that's why they have been featured in magazine after magazine, and have been praised by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Courtney Cox and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Seeing the popularity of thinkThin, including the wonderful line of thinkThin Crunch Bars that were introduced to Sprouts in 2011, it would be easy to think of this as an overnight success story. And it is. It's just that this particular overnight period has lasted about 12 years. Or, depending on how you look at it, an entire lifetime.
Lizanne Falsetto grew up in Seattle, with a passion for food but not an entrepreneurial bone in her body.
"I was brought up in an Italian family that grew all their own organic vegetables. My grandfather and grandmother came straight from Campobasso [in southern Italy]. And everything that was put on the table was fresh, delicious food."
Tall, outgoing and athletic, Falsetto had a natural affinity for basketball, and since her father served as coach of her brother's team, she spent a lot of time in the gym.
"They called me 'Rack Girl,' ball girl. And when one of the guys wouldn't show up and they had to practice, I would be the one they would shove out there. And I got to be pretty good. I loved it. It even got to the point where, when I was a freshman in high school, I had to train with the varsity male team because I couldn't train with the women."
Falsetto earned a basketball scholarship to Seattle University. But by this time, she had also come to realize that "tall, outgoing and athletic" lent itself to another career entirely: modeling. So she turned down the scholarship, and hit the runways in what would become a long and highly successful career as an international fashion model.
Now, for any model, staying slim is a mandate. The outfits are flattering and the cameras unforgiving. For this model, raised on fresh organic produce and southern Italian cooking, it was an enormous challenge. On the go all the time, bouncing from airport to airport, spending long days on shoots, she wasn't able to find the fresh, healthful foods she was accustomed to. (Bear in mind that at this time, in the 1980s, the natural foods movement had not really begun, and about the only "healthy fare" at the airports was the taxi to or from the hotel.)
Falsetto began branching out – bypassing the catered spreads at photo shoots, and wandering the local markets.
"When I traveled around the world I was able to really explore the sense of smell and taste and texture of foods, as well as herbs, to see how it energized me and made me feel better." At one point, while living in an apartment in Hong Kong, she delighted in the buckets of fresh ginseng and gingko biloba that were sold on nearby streets. And this planted a seed that would eventually germinate when she returned to the United States.
By 1995 she had largely retired from modeling, but the memories of her struggles to eat well lingered on. So she began experimenting in her kitchen, playing with formulas and ingredients, trying to figure out a way to deliver nutrition to on-the-go people without all of the carbohydrates and sugars. After a couple of years of trying, she produced a bar that she thought was pretty good, and brought a batch to a production facility to test them out and put a wrapper on them. She called them "Think! Bars."
"The concept was to create food that people thought about when they put it in their body," she recalls. "Kind of like the Chinese yin-and-yang concept of feed your body/feed your mind." She shopped them around to family, friends and retailers alike, tinkering with the recipes and enjoying only a smattering of success.
"I ate Top Ramen for two years when I started the business,"" she laughs, the memory still close enough to the surface to hurt a little bit. "I had no money. To the point at which we couldn't make bills. Electricity would be shut off. I put everything I could into my business. And we had a house with no furniture. I truly came out of the kitchen into the garage."
But around 2003, the "low carb era" dawned, generating a demand that Lizanne Falsetto's fledgling company was well positioned to meet. Their bars had always been high protein, low carb, zero gram sugar or low sugar, and gluten-free. Now, as it turned out, that's exactly what the world had been looking for.
"In about 2004 I realized that, you know what? There is something to this! People are on the go, they are busy, the food is good and they want to eat it."
Another important realization was that the people who could benefit the most from these bars could be readily identified. Call it "target marketing." These people had the busiest schedules, the most nutritional needs, and the largest concerns about weight management. And they all happened to lack a y chromosome.
"We made a perceptible shift in our marketing toward women, because #1, 80 percent of the shopping is done by females, and #2, I'm a female spokesperson that caters to my lifestyle. I'm in my 40s, have two kids, want to have energy and want to feel good, but I also want to watch my waistline. I really do."
They honed in on their message, converted the name of the company to thinkThin, and began to expand – even while their customers' waistlines began to shrink.
Today, overseeing a passionate and dedicated corporate staff of 20 in Ventura, CA, a production facility in Oakland, and a team of part-timers, brokers and demo clerks from coast to coast that numbers more than 200, Falsetto seems transformed. Her conversations are littered with terms like "quants" and "platforms" and "flavor profiles." She has a remarkable command of detail about the production processes and nutritional contributions of different ingredients. She is a member of YPO (the Young Presidents Organization), sits on the board of the Arizona Cancer Center, has raised large sums of money for charities devoted to using nutrition to prevent disease, and in 2010 was awarded the prestigious Leadership Award from the National Association of Women Business Owners.
And yet, Falsetto does not think she is cut from the same cloth as the normal company president.
For one thing, there is the "guinea pig" fashion in which she built her business. "You can have the mentality of being book smart, or you can have the mentality of living it, breathing it, experiencing it. And that's where I fit in."
For another, there is her dual role of chief executive officer and chief household officer. She is a single mom, raising two young kids (Alexa and Aidan) who understandably have a love/hate relationship with thinkThin.
"I think they are both very proud," says Falsetto, her intonation a reflection of her own pride. "Alexa, especially, says things to me like, 'Oh Mom, one of the guys at school, he was eating your bars and kept asking me, Wow, this is so cool, your Mom makes these bars?' And then there is: 'Mom, can you get off the phone?' So I fear there is some Mommy Time that may be taken up. That's just truthful, what can I say? When you are working and running a business, there is so much you want to deliver, and sometimes it is really hard to put it down."
And then there is her sense of "all for one" in the fight against disease, which trumps even her competitive spirit as a CEO. This was very much in evidence a couple of years ago, when she dipped into her distant past to put on a fundraising fashion show at Expo West, the big natural foods tradeshow.
"The whole idea of that was trying to bring together a community. Everybody, whether it is retailer, colleague, competitive vendor or manufacturer, we are the world, right? We are the world. Can you imagine what would happen if every vendor came together and said, 'Why not choose a cause and give a penny to everything that is scanned through the registers?' It would just be unbelievable. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, it also takes a village to build the prevention message, which is 'what you eat is who you are.'"
So what is next for Lizanne Falsetto and thinkThin? There is already a growing lineup of 10 thinkThin Protein flavors (including Chunky Peanut Butter, Brownie Crunch, White Chocolate Chip and Chocolate Covered Strawberry), and three thinkThin Bites (100-calorie snack-sized portions in flavors like Chocolate Toffee Nut and White Chocolate Raspberry).
The first big new innovation is the Crunch Bar – a salty/savory bar that contains fruits, nuts, and the usual dynamic, nutritious thinkThin lineup of high protein, high fiber, no glutens, and low or no sugar. Watching the Crunch bars being made in thinkThin's production facility near downtown Oakland, the quality of the ingredients is evident. Huge bags of almonds sit waiting in one room, and when they go into the batter, they go in whole. Even when the batter gets rolled out into an endless, long thin carpet prior to cutting and wrapping, the large whole nuts are everywhere – an average of about five per bar. (With the heavenly aroma hovering over the side-by-side production lines on the day we visited – one cranking out Chocolate Mixed Nut Crunch Bars, the other making Brownie Crunch Protein Bars – it was a wonder that the plant workers could resist the temptation to do some "product testing.")
True to Lizanne's style, the Crunch idea was the result of some good hard analysis, and a little bit of observational aha.
"We looked at SPINS and Nielsen [product rating] data, and it was clear that the fruit-and-nut category was growing, along with people circling back to the idea that, 'Wow, you know, I shouldn't be eating so much sugar.' But also, there was Alexa. Her favorite candy is a PayDay Bar, but I'm not able to buy it for her because she has allergies and some issues with glutens. So I thought to myself, 'Why can't I make a crunchy bar that is just a slab bar with almonds, and take out the sugar, and add some more protein?'"
One can bet that with the early success of the Crunch line, there is indeed a pay day ahead for thinkThin.
There will also be new flavors with a strong emphasis on antioxidants, by incorporating blueberries, cranberries, noni extract and goji berries.
And thinkThin will be creating some new items in the snack category. That's because a certain CEO has long had a hunch that there is magic in the salty/savory combination.
"Three years ago we experimented with a pizza bar. It was high protein, and salty and savory, and it tasted just like a cheese pizza. And when I brought it to the table, everybody thought I was nuts. I said, 'No, I'm telling you. Salty/savory. There's something about it. It's going to come around.'"
They didn't end up putting the pizza bars into production (nor the "salad bars" that Lizanne dreamt up, with Caesar salad flavors and Parmesan cheese on top; probably just as well). But lessons learned. Yes, she was "nuts" – the Crunch bars would eventually prove that. And yes, salty/savory would have its day.
For the moment, though, this pluperfect former model is content to keep rolling out those bars, building and nurturing her team and family, and using every opportunity to preach the benefits of perfect nutrition in an imperfect world.
"I have such a personal passion to make a difference just in who I would like to be as I get older," she says. And she is doing exactly that, one bar at a time.
From a previous issue of Sprouts Farmers Market’s monthly e-newsletter. Hungry? Click here to sign up.