Social Impact Snacking
Ryan Devlin is on a mission to feed the hungry with This Bar Saves Lives
By Stephanie Case
In 2011, Ryan Devlin started his Washington Boulevard-based granola bar company with a simple email to a friend. Its subject line: “Just a little idea to save the world.”
Attached to the email was a photograph from a humanitarian trip the two friends had taken to Liberia a few years prior. They’d visited a refugee clinic, filled with emaciated children suffering from dire malnutrition. Parents and nurses stood by their sides, struggling to keep them alive.
“It was one of those scenes where once you see it, you can’t un-see it,” says Devlin. “It just hit us. We were talking to the doctors and the nurses there, and we asked, ‘How do we help? What do you need?’
“They said, ‘We need more of this,’ and then pointed to some boxes of emergency food aid.”
The needs of these children — and thousands like them across the globe — are at the heart of This Bar Saves Lives, Devlin’s granola bar venture. For each bar the company sells, they donate a packet of emergency food aid to youth in need. The back of each wrapper reads: “Buy a bar. Feed a child. We eat together.”
“There’s something very human, very communal, about the practice of eating,” says Devlin, 36. “There are children throughout this world, through no fault of their own, who do not have the nutrition that they need, and we can do something about it. We can link our meals here to nutrition abroad.”
While customers snack on fruit and nut blends like Wild Blueberry Pistachio and Dark Chocolate, Cherry & Sea Salt, malnourished kids in pockets of Haiti, the Philippines and Guatemala consume medical-grade food aid, like Plumpy’Nut: a high-calorie, high-nutrient peanut butter paste that can rapidly reverse severe hunger. A twice-daily dose sustained over eight to ten weeks, Devlin says, can bring a kid from the brink of starvation to full health.
In just three and a half years, This Bar Saves Lives has donated more than 1.5 million packets of food aid across the globe — enough to help save more than 10,000 lives. In July, August and September alone, the company sent 11.6 tons of food to communities in crisis, according to its quarterly giving report.
“I think social impact business is the future of all business,” says Devlin. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that consumers are now demanding more than just a good product: They’re demanding an impact with their purchase.”
One of Devlin’s business icons is Paul Newman, the late Oscar-winning actor who started his own food-based social impact company, Newman’s Own, funneling his profits straight to charity.
Like Newman, Devlin splits his time between the food industry and acting. He’s guest starred on a slew of television shows, like “Jane the Virgin” and “Cougar Town,” and his This Bar Saves Lives partners — cofounders Todd Grinnell (“Desperate Housewives,” “Grace & Frankie”) and Ravi Patel (“Master of None,” “Grandfathered”), along with board member Kristen Bell (“Frozen,” “Veronica Mars”) — are also Hollywood regulars.
“I think a lot of people might look at our company and say, ‘It was started by actors, and they have celebrity friends,’ and assume it was easy,” Devlin says. “But we started small. [The first years] were the Wild West for us, because we were just getting out there and trying to figure out how the heck to do this thing.
“At first, we made a lot of mistakes — we were in tiny stores, we lost accounts, we had bad recipes, we had packaging and distribution problems — but none of them sunk the company. … We’re stronger for it.”
After three years of grinding away, This Bar Saves Lives has finally broken into big-name stores such as Target and Whole Foods Market. The bars, which retail for between $2 and $3, are also available at every Starbucks counter in California, plus a handful of boutique Los Angeles spots such as Rainbow Acres on Washington Boulevard and Intelligentsia Coffee in Venice.
Back at their 10-person office in Culver City’s western panhandle, Devlin’s team spends their days working on new products and flavors.
“We’ll get 10 different recipe variations from our chef, and we’ll do blind taste tests. It’s like a sports tournament: Everybody will rank them, and we’ll whittle them down, through semi-finals and finals, until we have a winner,” he laughs.
It’s painstaking work, but Devlin wants each bar to taste as good as the message behind it.
“I think there’s a big pitfall in saying, ‘You know what? We can sell anything, slap a ‘give back’ mission on it, and it’ll sell fine,’” he says. “I think we have to be the best product with the wrapper off. Then, with the wrapper on, and with our mission, the bar means that much more.”
For more information about the company and to read quarterly giving updates, visit thisbarsaveslives.com.