Since 1987, Jennifer Maxwell has been powering the fitness world with energy bars. Maxwell, who founded PowerBar with her late husband, Brian Maxwell, sold the company in 2000 to Nestle. When her husband passed away suddenly in 2004, she took some time to heal and to raise her six children, but soon set about crafting an energy bar for a new generation.
Headquartered in San Rafael not far from Maxwell’s home in Ross, JAMBAR, whose name is inspired by Maxwell’s passion for music, makes organic, naturally sweetened energy bars crafted with high-quality protein and fiber. JAMBARs are now available in four flavors and are sold at Good Earth, United Market, Scotty’s Market and many other outlets. We recently chatted with Maxwell about how she got her start in the energy bar market, what motivated her to launch her new company and how she gives back.
How did you first get into fitness and nutrition?
Jennifer Maxwell (JM): I had a pretty unconventional childhood in Bolinas. Mom was teaching in Tiburon, so we commuted over the hill every day. I started running at a young age with my mom. I actually ran my first marathon at 13; I ran it in 3:25 — that’s crazy! I ran track and cross country at Tamalpais High School. In the process, as I learned that my body could actually do this, so I became interested in sports performance, especially the element of food. When I met Brian at U.C. Berkeley, I was already studying food science and nutrition, how to get the best out of your body physiologically using food.
You were first known for PowerBar; what is its origin story?
JW: I took a lot of exercise physiology at Cal. I worked with George Brooks (a professor of integrative biology who studies metabolic adjustments to exercise) in the mid-1980s in his lab, and graduated in 1988. I basically earned a minor in exercise physiology. I was competing in running, and that was how Brian and I met in 1985. I started building the business that year. Early in 1987, we were selling products from our little apartment. Brian and I would go to running events and stick flyers on car windows with an order form that people could mail in. We got thousands of orders that way and built the business. Our first account was a biking store in Berkeley on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, two blocks from our house.
Do you recall what the goals of the bar were when you launched?
JW: Digestibility, no fat, no hydrogenated oils. We broke the palm kernel oil mold and used gel with oat bran to hold our bars together. Our system of formulation was groundbreaking, and it didn’t melt because there was virtually no fat — it was less than 3 grams a bar.
PowerBar was not known to be nutritionally well-rounded or have clean ingredients. Do you have a sense of why people loved it?
JW: They liked the functionality of the product. People loved being able to grab it when out riding felt like they were about to bonk. It’s legendary. It will always hold an important part of my heart and my soul.
What are your biggest takeaways from building a company from zero to $375 million?
JW: I feel proud that PowerBar was innovative in the sports energy world, and also that we were innovative in our business model. We had a stock ownership plan so that our employees owned the business, and we had a profit-sharing program. It wasn’t just us. People felt invested to do a good job, that their hard work benefitted them.
So much has changed in bar nutrition since 1987.
JW: When JAMBAR started, I was talking about the industry of energy bars with my daughter, and how I didn’t like anything out there. The bars on the market aren’t bad, but there weren’t any that I wanted to eat. I wanted more natural sweeteners — no brown rice syrup or tapioca syrup. And dates are too sweet. I wanted more whole foods, not just dried fruit, and I wanted to eat organic.
With your nutrition and entrepreneurial background, did you start again from scratch?
JW: I started off slowly, putting stuff together in my kitchen, just like I did in 1985. The first couple years — 2015/16 — I just played with it. I went in all different directions with protein sources, flavors, fruits, grains. And I settled on my sweetener sources – maple syrup, grape syrup and date syrup. I don’t use oils or anything that isn’t real food. Most bars use brown rice protein. I didn’t want to use that because of the oil in it. You have to consider the digestibility and the solubility and extraction process. After a couple of years, I made some good progress. I felt good about putting this on the market. My reputation was at stake — I wanted to feel great about it.
You’re also a drummer. How did drumming enter your life?
JW: Music was transformative for me. Brian passed away in 2004, and I was raising the kids — my youngest was seven months old in 2004, and my other children were 4, 7, 9, 12 and 14. In the beginning, it was a struggle. I had always had athletics, but after Brian died, that part of me died. I still ran, but not like I did before. Music came into my life. It just appeared, particularly the drums. Drums are all about rhythm and timing. It was a continuation of the cadence, of the pulse of running. I started drum lessons, and it took 10 years to get good with practicing several hours a day. Drumming is very athletic.
Now I’m in two bands, and I play live. I’ve been playing for 15 years. I play at the California Jazz Conservatory at Cal and with the band Good Karma. We play local gigs, like at Blue Barn in Novato. We do some originals, some covers, Latin jazz, light rock and funk.
Now I understand where the bar name comes from.
JW: Our slogan is “Get your jam on,” and music is a huge emphasis of the product. Another caveat — J.A.M. is also my initials, but that’s a 5% factor.
A lot of brands have stepped into the category in recent years. How does JAMBAR stand apart from the pack?
JW: It’s the quality: No one has an organic and artisan bar, and nutritionally, how comprehensive it is. It’s real food with complex carbohydrates and fiber, 10 grams of protein per bar, and 20 percent real fruit. We built our production facility locally, in San Rafael. It was once a music studio for the Grateful Dead. We gutted it and installed everything.
You’ve lived in Ross for a long time. What inspires you about living here?
JW: It’s a lot of things: the natural beauty, of course; the like-minded spirit that people have here about enjoying the outdoors; the quality of education; and the availability of intellectual stimulation.
You’re a tremendous benefactor — for example, JAMBAR donates 50% of net profit to music and active living programs — what inspires you to support your community?
It must be inside me somewhere, but also I think it is that Brian and I felt so supported by our community when we started. We started from nothing. And the support we felt as we grew, not just from consumers but employees — we felt a lot of love around us. It must emanate from that.
Any shout-outs to your favorite organizations?
Tamalpa Runners, the Marin County Bicycle Coalition and One Tam for active living; Enriching Lives Through Music in the San Rafael Canal District, Jazz in the Neighborhood, and Bread and Roses for music and the performing arts. We’re also donating thousands of bars to Haiti through Sticking Up for Children.
Do you have a favorite bar?
JW: The chocolate flavor. It’s a little bit firmer, more like a chocolate oatcake. It’s a shelf-stable bar and a really good emergency food item.
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Christina Mueller is a long-time Bay Area food writer. She hails from the East Coast and has spent way too much time in South America and Europe. She discovered her talent as a wordsmith in college and her love of all things epicurean in grad school. She has written for Condé Nast Contract Publishing, Sunset, and the Marin Independent Journal, among others. She volunteers with California State Parks and at her child’s school, and supports the Marin Audubon Society, PEN America, and Planned Parenthood. When she is not drinking wine by a fire, she is known to spend time with her extended family.