Jess Cerra, from Jojé Bar, tells us this intriguing story about how she combined her culinary talent with science smarts to develop the perfect energy bar that tastes like a cookie. The Jojé Bar Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip is featured in the September Trailfoody.
Ever met an athlete or recreational enthusiast who doesn’t like a cookie? Me either! So why not create a bar that checks all the boxes from a nutritional standpoint, but also tastes like a cookie? Seems simple enough, but there is quite a story behind the evolution of JoJé bar.
Cycling Creates the Need for the Perfect Bar
In grad school, while studying bone health of elite cyclists, I discovered that I myself, the “lab rat,” actually had an overwhelming capacity for cycling. After finishing my M.S. in Exercise Physiology, there was finally time to start exploring my athletic potential.
So, in 2008 with the help of some awesome mentors, I started racing mountain bikes and XTERRA off-road triathlon. In 2010, I won the XTERRA Amateur National Championship and started racing professionally. Eventually, I switched my focus to racing mountain bikes professionally and then to road racing. From 2015-2016, I raced on the UCI Domestic Continental team Twenty16, and in 2017 for Hagens Berman|Supermint, where I have competed internationally in some of the biggest races in the world, along with all the major US races.
Sports Nutrition Meets Culinary Skill
During this time, I combined my love of racing professionally, with my knowledge of sports nutrition and science and started a small, private chef company. The primary focus was–and remains–on private, nutrition-conscious, in-home chef services and healthy cooking classes, plus a special niche in triathlon and cycling camp catering. I love working one-on-one and riding with my clients. Additionally, I’m a regular contributor to the “Fuel” section in Triathlete Magazine.
Before I knew it, in my circle, I had become the go-to girl for advice on nutrition and training. My training buddies and I used to joke about how we wished we could just fuel ourselves with cookies, so I bet them I could come up with something.
The key was putting actual scientific thought into this process because it seemed the market lacked any energy bars that tasted delicious and met our needs from a nutritional standpoint. Most bars would cause a rush of energy, and then a quick depletion of energy, which couldn’t even be justified by taste because they really weren’t crave worthy.
Real Food is Better for Your Body
My first thoughts were to focus on using real food ingredients. I knew from personal experience that my body always functioned better on real food. Packing nuts and dried fruit, almond butter and apple slices, PB&J sandwiches, and baked good were always my favorite snacks.
And this wasn’t just my experience on the bike. I grew up in the mountains of Montana and am no stranger to hiking, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ball sports, you name it. I love being outdoors, and I love good food.
The Science is Key
I was confident in my cookie baking skills, so all I had to do was combine some science into the recipe. At the time, cutting edge research showed that endurance athletes need more fat in their fuel sources, which makes sense because fat is used for energy when exercising at 70% or less of your max capacity, which is most of the time. Carbohydrates are still important and needed when we rip up into those intense efforts, and research emphasizes the importance of trying to keep glycogen stores full at the end of a training effort to maximize recovery. In other words, it’s not a good idea to finish activity feeling bonked.
Research was also making it clear that high protein bars were not great for endurance activity because protein is the one macronutrient digested in the stomach. Not fun to have all your blood rushing to your stomach while you’re out on an intense hike, trail run, or riding your bike up a mountain.
Finally, I knew a lot of athletes that were choosing to go gluten free to limit gut irritation, and I could sense this would be an important nutrition trend.
The First Bar is Born!
So I took to the kitchen, with a notebook and a pen, and started the process. To begin, I chose a basic flavor, Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip. I carefully selected real food ingredients such as oats, peanuts, and honey. I needed to teach myself the ins and outs of baking gluten free because there is a learning curve.
I began experimenting by baking pans and pans of bars. I would write down the total macronutrient contents in each pan, and then change ingredients until I got the ratios I was looking for based off the research. I also worked hard on the ratio of simple and complex carbohydrates to eliminate the blood sugar highs and lows.
Then the fun part, field-testing began, and I had plenty of eager subjects who pretty much devoured every sample I offered up, even the crumbly ones. Right off the bat, friends and training buddies were offering to pay me to bake them pans of bars. And they were telling their friends, who were emailing me orders. Within a couple of months I was shipping foil wrapped bars all over the country to cookie-starved athletes.
This is the Best Compliment You Can Get
Once I had the base of the recipe nailed down, I wanted to create more flavors, which needed to be superb and unique. A training buddy suggested white chocolate and coconut, and that is how the White Chocolate Coconut Blondie was born. There is not another bar out there that even comes close to touching this flavor. The biggest compliments I’ve ever been given are how people have to hide this flavor from their husbands or wives, or hide it from themselves in their cars, or how they heat it and serve it with ice cream. When you are getting compliments like this, ON AN ENERGY BAR, you know you’ve nailed it.
The best part, the science in the bars was actually working. People were raving about how they could eat 6 bars on a 100-mile ride and have no stomach problems, and loved the consistent energy. Personally, I had an epiphany during a hard road race, when I ate a bar at the base of a 20-mile climb and had my best hilltop finish ever.
From Hobby to Business
Then came the major challenge. Everyone wanted to get their mitts on the bars, so I became overwhelmed quite quickly. To fulfill orders I was working half way through the night. This is when my dear friend and training buddy, John, suggested that I take it to the next step. He helped me create a plan to scale up, which started with finding a larger commercial kitchen space.
John and I began working side by side with in the new kitchen space. He even helped me test and experiment with the next four flavors: Espresso Chocolate Almond, Lemon Blueberry Quinoa, Apple Walnut Cake, and YES Pancakes & Bacon (in fact, all the credit on that flavor dream goes to John).
What had started as a hobby and a passion for cookies became something we could share with everyone, so we founded JoJé bar. The journey has not been easy but it has been overwhelmingly rewarding. Racing professionally and running a company is a huge balance, that couldn’t be accomplished without John, who also races on an elite amateur level.
The fact that we both use the bars in our own training and racing speaks volumes about our product. But, nothing compares to when someone takes a bite of a JoJé bar for the first time, and their face lights up as they smile and exclaim, “This tastes like a cookie!”