Jim Simon loves a good fight. Whether it’s wrestling, boxing or mixed martial arts, he’s a fan of them all. So it’s no surprise that when he describes his company, Chicago-based Jimmy! Functional Snacks, the word that comes up most often is scrappy. In the bar category, the company’s flagship product, the Jimmy!Bar, is the one to watch, and other snack categories are not far behind. The company has grown by leaps and bounds, even through the bar slump of 2020, by continuously reinventing its product to meet consumers’ needs and refusing to be hemmed in by traditional expectations and limitations. 

“We’ve taken an atypical approach,” said Mr. Simon, the company’s founder and chief executive officer. “We’re scrappy and hungry. We didn’t go out and raise money from venture capitalists. We didn’t go into major natural retailers and pay slotting fees. But we’ve been profitable seven out of nine years, and we launched new products during COVID. We’re selling internationally now. We’re scrappy; we think outside the box.”

With manufacturing lessons learned and automation on the horizon, the company sits ready to unleash its pent-up growth for its own brand, private label and future opportunities to entire new categories of snacks. 

Jimmy! Functional Snacks started in 2014 as Jimmy!Bar, a collaboration between Mr. Simon and his sister, Annette Del Prete, president of the company’s manufacturing arm, Nettie’s Kitchen. While they didn’t set out to create a bar company, Mr. Simon did want to solve the problem of taste in natural foods. 

“I realized that, in natural foods, 99% is just good marketing while 1% might be truth,” he said. “A lot of brands will stick the word organic in front of something, and the consumers will think it’s healthy, and it’s not, so we wanted to do something more honest. We wanted to create a product that tasted good. We threw out a lot of ideas but landed on bars.” 

Ms. Del Prete’s training as a chef and restaurateur drove the product development engine along with her husband, Felipo Del Prete, and Mr. Simon developed the brand and began shopping it around. The original Jimmy!Bar was very different from today’s product. It was a clean label, nutritious-but-delicious bar with date paste as the base and sweetened with other fruits. 

“We burned out several Cuisinart mixers using that date paste,” said Ms. Del Prete, thinking back to the early days of developing the first prototypes. 

On the branding side, Mr. Simon wanted to move away from the macho messaging most other bars use to market to consumers. To stand out, the Jimmy!Bar brand aims to be more fun with its Tiffany Blue color and exclamation points. While the brand’s audience does skew more female, don’t be fooled. Jimmy!Bar has found an enthusiastic partnership within the mixed martial arts community with 17 professional fighters representing the brand. 

In addition to partnering with athletes and influencers, Mr. Simon said demos have been critical to success. When marketing a healthy bar as delicious, tasting is believing. 

“Get the bars in people’s mouths; they have to taste it,” he said. 

Mr. Simon used his connections in the technology industry — before Jimmy!Bar he was in tech sales — to get the bar into corporate cafeterias of tech companies. Then in 2018, Jimmy!Bar received feedback during demonstrations that caused the R&D team to take a step back. 

“We were demoing in a grocery store, and this woman tried our date-based bar, and she looked at the label and said the sugar was too high,” Mr. Simon said. “Even though we pointed out the sugar was coming from the dates, bananas and apples, this shopper said, ‘Sugar is sugar.’ People don’t care anymore about how healthy it is; people only care about the macros.”

Jimmy!Bar evolved from the all-natural date-based bars into Bars with Benefits, a line of low-sugar, high-protein bars that deliver functional ingredients. Eye of the Tiger promotes performance and recovery with ingredients like turmeric and guarana. Wake & Focus contains guarana, MCT oil and omega-3 oils for brain health, and the Beauty Bar contains collagen and antioxidants for hair, skin and bone health. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted Jimmy!Bar to develop its Citrus Burst Immunity Bar, which contains orange, mango, acerola, cherry, almonds and turmeric. It boasts 5 grams of sugar and provides 300% of a person’s daily vitamin C.  

“It’s solving a problem,” Mr. Simon explained. “Whatever bar you pick, you’re picking for a reason.”

To stay on the right side of regulations, Jimmy!Bar doesn’t make any health claims on its packaging but simply names the functional ingredients and lets consumers draw their own conclusions. The tactic has worked, and now Jimmy!Bars are in major retailers across the United States and even in Ireland, Australia and the United Kingdom. 

Another boost to Jimmy!Bar’s success that has opened the door to other snacks was the launch of its high-fat, low-sugar keto-friendly bar line. The success of the keto-friendly bar led to the development of the keto dessert cup: a rich fudge peanut butter dessert with a texture like brownie batter. 

While Jimmy!Bar may have started out as a bar company, it’s never been the goal, and the dessert cups marked the company’s first step toward its vision. 

“We want to be a functional snacks company, not a bar company,” Mr. Simon said. “We launched our pudding cups, and in 2023 we will have five new SKUs that aren’t bars. There are a million ways to get your nutrition, but Americans want it quick. We’ll stay relevant by sticking to convenience, functionality and taste.”

This article is an excerpt from the December 2022 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Jimmy! Functional Snacks, click here.