The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Business

May 12, 2014

Mankato West grads start FiveFriendsFood

Ross Pomeroy simply wanted something better for his clients. As a personal trainer in Madison, Wis., where he went to college, he and the people he trained had tried just about every nutrition and snack bar there was. And nearly everyone was dry, crumbly and unsatisfying. So in his apartment kitchen, Ross began experimenting, finally baking what he’d been searching for: a fresh, nutritious apple-banana-almond bar with much better texture than anything he’d had. And that, as they say, is how it all began.

About three years ago, when Ross’ identical twin, Will Handke (Will took his mother’s maiden name, Ross took his father’s) came back from Georgetown, they agreed there was a larger market. They were soon joined in their venture by fellow Mankato West High School graduates Austin Hinkle, Mike Steffan and Tom Johnson. Every Monday and Wednesday evening, the five 20-somethings, once called “the nerd herd” at West because of their shared passion for video games, now share a new passion: producing Fresh Bars. They bake up to 3,000 bars a week, enough for 1,000 three-bar packages.

The company is called FiveFriendsFood. Two of the five – Will Handke and Tom Johnson – recently were able to sit down at a south Minneapolis coffee house to discuss their company and their vision. Will is the only full-time employee right now, handling sales, ordering, shipping, bookkeeping and marketing, in addition to sharing baking duties. The other four partners all maintain day jobs.

While Johnson’s dad was once dean of the Business College at Minnesota State University, a business background isn’t mandatory for becoming an entrepreneur. Handke confesses he studied theology at Georgetown. Asked how that has helped him in this endeavor, he only halfway deadpans: “It taught me how to pray.”

During a trip to the Lund’s store on West Lake Street in Minneapolis, it takes some looking to find Fresh Bar. There are dozens of choices – Nature Valley (General Mills), Quaker, Kellogg’s and more – in the snack aisle. Those are the “crumbly ones,” the Friends will tell you, that may have sat in a warehouse for weeks before sitting some more on the grocery shelf. Some contain ingredients commonly shunned by the health-conscious crowd, such as hydrogenated palm oil and BHT preservative.

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