Wednesday, September 26, 2012/lk
Mark Ribkoff started PocketFuel with an idea, a blender and a patient wife.
The Hood River resident and passionate sportsman was sick of tasteless cardboard energy bars and sad excuses for healthy snacks on the go. As an athlete, Ribkoff wanted an energy-rich food that was both nutritious and appetizing, without the bulk of carrying various foodstuffs in a backpack or the mess of smashed fruit in his pockets. As an entrepreneur, he recognized the product he wanted didn’t exist, but the demand for it, and the potential to tap into the steadily growing action sports market, was high.
Starting with raw ingredients and a mad-scientist determination, Ribkoff used his home kitchen to develop several blends of what are now described as “nut butters with kick.” Less than three years later the product-in-a-pouch — in such variations as Chocolate Smackaroon, Chunky Coconut Cherry and Crunchy Banana Blueberry — is tapping into the mainstream market and landing in shops across the country.
“I’m a designer and a marketer by trade, so I naturally thought to myself, “There’s got to be a better way to fuel on-the-go with healthy ingredients,’” Ribkoff said recently from his downtown Hood River office. “There was a lot of experimentation to get what I felt was the right consistency, taste and nutrition profile. It was about six months of trial and error at home before I had something I thought was ready to sell to the public.”
Taking advantage of a captive audience, Ribkoff introduced PocketFuel to the public last year during the summer-long Hood River Farmers Market series every Thursday evening. The free human testing provided valuable feedback, and affirmation that the product was indeed marketable.
“I think I showed up with three flavors and about 10 jars,” he said. He handed out free servings in little paper cups and asked what people thought. “It’s pretty funny when I think back to that. But it proved to be an important part of PocketFuel’s history. People’s responses were very positive and the one-on-one feedback was a valuable tool in learning what people liked and didn’t like. The feedback was a huge confidence booster; that’s when I realized I was onto something special.”
Once he had a few recipes dialed, Ribkoff and his wife, Heidi, rented space at Columbia Gorge Community College’s commercial kitchen in The Dalles, where they could make more substantial batches of the product. With help from friend Rod Parmenter, they also developed packaging, labeling and company branding.
The first official launch and retail sales came in October 2011, during the Gorge Marathon. Packaged in small, waterproof, sealable pouches, the product quickly proved ideal for on-the-move athletes in need of fuel but with strict limitations on size, shape, weight and smashability.
Shortt Supply in downtown Hood River was the first retailer to stock the product, but after the marathon several others wanted it in their shops.
“The response was overwhelming,” Ribkoff said. “From the few people who bought it during the marathon, we got leads on retailers. We started with one shop at the end of October, but by the end of the year we had 10. It’s amazing how fast it happened.”
A few months later Pocket Fuel was in 20 stores; by early spring (2012) it was up to 30, and by the end of this summer more than 100 stores in 31 states were placing orders
“We now have two part -ime employees in addition to Heidi and I working full-time,” Ribkoff said. “We’re still making batches at CGCC; just larger and more often. I expect that we will grow out of that kitchen’s capabilities within six months.”
When that happens, Ribkoff says the company’s options will be to either outsource production of the product to an outside facility or build a factory of his own; the latter of which, he says, is less likely and much more expensive.
Outgrowing the facility is a great problem to have, but it remains a problem; and he’ll have to find a solution soon. Last week Ribkoff was in Las Vegas introducing PocketFuel to thousands of retailers at Interbike; considered cycling industry’s largest trade show in the world. After that it’s off to Austin in December for “The Running Event,” which is one of the largest trade shows and exhibitions in the world for the running industry.
“I’ve helped other companies see great success and am confident that PocketFuel is going to grow to a substantial size and become a major player … ,” Ribkoff said. “I feel very fortunate to have the support of family and friends to make this happen.”