BRATTLEBORO—Allison Wright, owner of Brattleboro’s OWL Energy Bars, was named Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the Vermont Small Business Administration.
Vermont Business Magazine and the U.S. Small Business Administration will present Wright her award on June 11 at the Shelburne Museum’s Pizzagalli Center.
Wright said “all who were considered were nominated by someone,” and “Richard Meunier, my dad, nominated me.” She said he saw “something on the television about the Small Business Administration taking nominations for stellar business owners.”
In addition to Wright’s father providing the nomination for the award, Wright attributes some of her success to her mother, Peggy Meunier.
“My mom has a culinary degree,” and she said she spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her. She credits her mother with “support, education, confidence,” noting those were “huge!”
Winning the Young Entrepreneur of the Year award has brought Wright a great deal of attention.
“I’ve had people coming out of the woodwork,” she said. “The award is highlighting this journey that has led me to success and growth.”
Wright started OWL Energy Bars in 2011 in a licensed home kitchen in her home town of Shelburne.
The next year, she moved to The Cotton Mill, the century-old mill building in Brattleboro that now serves as a business incubator, housing 60 small businesses and artists’ studios.
Upon arriving at the Cotton Mill, she shared a commercial kitchen there, but outgrew that, she said.
“I now have a three-floor operation,” Wright said. Offices occupy the top level, then she has a cooking level in the middle, and refrigeration and production on the bottom level.
Wright characterizes her dairy-free, non-GMO bars as “smart, clean, easy to digest, [and] minimally-processed.” She said she made a “conventional” energy bar for the first year-and-a-half in business, but “many gluten-free people said ‘I can’t eat it’ so I made the bars gluten-free.”
She said she uses “responsibly-sourced ingredients.”
She notes the “old-fashioned peanut butter” she uses is simply peanuts and salt. As the first ingredient, it, plus the abundance of dried fruit, give the bars the familiar flavor of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in granola-bar form.
“We use local, raw, unheated honey,” from Singing Cedars Apiary in Orwell, Vt., she said, noting unpasteurized honey “retains pollen and pure protein.” She also said honey is “low on the glycemic scale,” so there is “no sugar spike and crash."
The 2.7-ounce full-size bars are “like a trail-mix type of ingredients, for active or busy lifestyles,” Wright said.
She mentioned an elderly customer who appreciates the OWL bars for “helping her nutrition in her later years."
The smaller-format OWL Pellets Wright said “are for calorie-conscious” people, or for caregivers to put in children’s lunchboxes. Each 0.86-ounce “pellet” is 100 calories.
“No owls were harmed in the making of these bars,” Wright joked. “OWL” is an acronym, she said, for “original, wholesome, local.” Plus, she explained, “owls are a really cute image and people love them."
“People are surprised it’s not too sweet,” Wright said, noting “there are a lot of notoriously sugary items out there” in the energy bar world. “They are happy to find gluten-free, dairy-free bars that taste good.”
She has heard on more than one occasion that her bars “don’t make it home in the car” from customers’ grocery shopping excursions.
Wright said she began making energy bars because “I didn’t like the options at the stores, I thought I could do better.”
She began producing and sharing them with her friends, who all “really liked them.” Still, she said, “it took many years of hearing that before I did it. I had to own up to my calling.”
Wright’s previous career made her a better candidate for eating energy bars than making them.
“I led a private group of skiers and writers into a private playground in avalanche-type of terrain in Wyoming,” she said. She would use a Sno-Cat (a tracked vehicle for heavy snow conditions) to transport the guests to a remote area, then she said, “the Sno-Cat leaves,” and her guests had to ski in the wilderness.
After Wright sustained a knee injury, the career she loved faced a sudden end. So, she had to reinvent herself, she said, to find a new “perfect dream job."
In OWL Energy Bars, Wright found it.
How is Wright handling the growth of her business?
“By trying not to freak out!” she said.
“I’m really hands-on,” she said. “I actually make my product.”
She said she and her one employee, Caitlin Drennen, make everything from scratch in Wright’s Cotton Mill facility. “Beyond a mixer, it’s all by hand: cutting, packing, and labeling,” she said.
The challenge, she said, is trying to figure out “what I can pass off.” Wright runs her business, as do many small business owners, according to the “many hats” approach: “I am the bookkeeper, marketing, production, human resources...”
“I ship to every state in the Union,” she said, via OWL’s website, and she distributes her product to stores in New England and some Middle Atlantic states.
Wright also wants to expand her product line to add different flavors. Wright has entered a business plan competition, and she said, “if capital comes, then my plans accelerate.”
She plans to hire more personnel “very soon,” she said, adding, “I am going to have to.”