When Jess Cerra set out to create a new type of energy bar she knew it had to be made with real food ingredients and packed with nutrition for fueling athletes. But her top goal was give it a unique taste — like a cookie.
Cerra, who grew up in Whitefish but now resides in California, is a professional road cyclist and private chef who has parlayed her personal and professional interests into creating a growing business. JoJe Bar is a snack designed to provide energy, while still tasting good.
Cerra created the original bars in her own kitchen after cyclist friends began asking for something better than the bars they were eating while riding.
“They said, ‘Can you make a cookie I can eat on my bike,'” she said. “I went into my kitchen and started baking bars with different ingredients. I wanted to make sure it could meet the nutritional needs of a professional athlete, but also tasted good.”
“I was baking pans and pans of them, wrapping them in foil, and shipping them around the country,” she added.
The energy bars are organic, non-GMO, dairy-free, gluten-free and have been created to provide key nutrients for active people. Flavors include the more common combination in a snack bar — peanut butter and chocolate chip — but also the surprising — pancakes and bacon.
Cerra says the pancakes and bacon flavor was her business partner John Abate's idea.
“When we did the research and development I thought everyone would hate it, but they like it,” she said. “We have a lot of flavor ideas — I'm a foodie.”
She says the peanut butter and chocolate chip is a personal favorite, but around the holidays she likes the apple walnut cake. A friend made a suggestion that resulted in the lemon blueberry quinoa bar.
“We pride ourselves on unique flavors, texture and taste,” she said. “There's hundreds of bars out there, but they're not good — they don't taste like real food. We're getting back to a time when people used to eat real food.”
Cerra didn't set out to be a professional athlete or the developer of an energy bar. After graduating from Whitefish High School, Cerra earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Montana and headed to San Diego State University to earn her master's degree. She became interested in cycling through a research project that looked at calcium re-absorption of cyclists.
“I secretly thought it was really cool and I wanted to try it,” she said of cycling. “I took a cardio vascular fitness test and found that I ranked in the high professional level for a female athlete. My professor game me a mountain bike and I started riding.”
She won the XTERRA triathlon amateur national championship in 2010, but was diagnosed with severe iliac artery compression syndrome. She would eventually have the iliac artery in both her legs replaced. During rehab she began road cycling and eventually turned professional riding for Hagens Berman Supermint Pro Cycling Team.
Cerra also works as a private chef working in a niche area by catering to professional athletes and families who want to eat healthy. She said she enjoys cooking for athletes because when they finish training or racing and are handed a “taco or burrito” they “enjoy it so much better.” Training as a professional athlete herself has changed her perspective.
“I started thinking of food in a sense of how it's going to fuel me,” she said. “When I'm riding 500 miles, and I'm hungry all the time.”
Cerra partnered with friend and fellow cyclist John Abate to market and develop the JoJe Bar with a goal of increasing their distribution. JoJe Bar recently launched a Kickstarter campaign seeking to expand their production into a larger-scale kitchen facility to decrease their costs so they can in turn expand their market. As of Tuesday, they had raised about $20,000 toward their $25,000 goal. The campaign ends on Nov. 15.
“Our bars have become popular, but we want to be able to go to the big distributors,” Cerra said. “We're only self-distributed now, but to do that we need to be able to make more bars.”
Cerra oversees production of the bars, along with continuing to train and work as a chef. She returns to Whitefish every summer.
“People care about each other in Whitefish,” she said. “My roots are there and I always try to put that into my company.”
Seeing JoJe Bars in stores in the Flathead Valley is something she didn't expect. She and her dad, Fred Cerra, constructed the wooden display boxes that hold the bars. The bars are available at Sportsman and Ski Haus, The Wave, and Montana Coffee Traders in Kalispell and Columbia Falls.
“I never pictured myself as an entrepreneur,” she said. “I have a big dream that one day I can live in Whitefish again. I would love to have a facility there and provide jobs for people.”
For more information on JoJe Bars visit, https://jojebar.com/. Visit the Kickstarter page at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/32251882/joje-bar-were-changing-the-energy-bar-world.