Local duo creates low-sugar protein bars
When a dream comes true, it typically refers to a wish or prayer coming to fruition. In Tony Leonardi’s case, it was a literal dream that spawned his new business venture.
“I had a dream I was making protein bars with mashed sweet potatoes,” the Newtown resident said. “That got me thinking about making bars and studying the business. After a month of thinking, I said: ‘Let me try this.’ I started mashing sweet potatoes and adding other ingredients in the kitchen.”
The result — after testing the bars on his kids and gymmates — is Muscle Up Bars. The product has more than two times the amount of protein than sugar, which Leonardi calls a rarity in the protein bar market. The bars include grass-fed, pasture-raised whey protein and other organic ingredients.
“We are just as passionate about ingredients that we intentionally excluded,” said Lori Aleks, Leonardi’s life and business partner. “There is nothing in the bars that we can’t pronounce.”
Aleks, a Weston resident, said Muscle Up bars do not contain soy, alcohol sugars, cellulose gum, Stevia or dextrin.
Muscle Up bars comes in two flavors: cacao & vanilla and peanut butter. Double chocolate espresso flavored bars are in the works.
“Kids love our bars,” Leonari said. “They have no idea there is sweet potato in them or that it’s healthy for them. They can be enjoyed as a preworkout bar, a post-workout protein boost, or simply as a snack.”
The bars may be found in about 80 gyms, delis, markets and cafes, mostly in Connecticut. In greater Danbury, the bars are sold at Caraluzzi’s markets, LaBonne’s markets, Newtown General Store, Camomille Natural Foods Store, The Well in Wilton and several Crossfit gyms.
They are also available online at www.muscleupbars.com. Leonardi said about 40 percent of sales come from online.
The business side
Nelson Merchan, an adviser with the Connecticut Small Business Development Center, worked with Leonardi and Aleks to apply for small-business loans and other aspects of getting Muscle Up Bars off the ground.
“Tony and Lori are passionate about life and their business. This passion allowed them to launch a better product targeting an audience they know quite well,” Merchan said. “Having a natural product, high in protein and with grass-fed whey protein is a dream for many. Tony and Lori are on the ball. They move fast in the gym and business wise and that is key to continue growing.”
Leonardi and Aleks, who are both in their 50s, are each accomplished masters athletes and compete in weightlifting competitions. Aleks is a level 2 trainer for Crossfit and is affiliated with Crossfit Westport. Leonardi, who is also a financial planner, trains at Crossfit RedZone in Newtown.
The name “Muscle Up” comes a difficult maneuver Crossfit athletes work hard at accomplishing.
“It’s a clever name,” Aleks said. “It’s perfect for the product.”
Dream to reality
Once Leonardi perfected the recipe he dreamed up, then came the task of introducing Muscle Up bars to the world. Unable to mass produce the bars or perform a nutritional analysis at home, he looked for an outside source to make and package the bars. He found Co-Pack, a packaging manufacturer in California. He also formed a limited liability partnership and registered the business with the state.
“In food retail, you really have to make sure your ‘i’s are dotted and ‘t’s are crossed,” he said.
Leonardi and Aleks do the distribution and order fulfillment on their own. Aleks includes a hand-written thank you note for each online order.
“It’s important that people know how much we appreciate them,” she said.
Sales, marketing, business development and the company’s financials are also handled by Leonardi and Aleks.
“Coming up with the recipe is the easy part,” Leonardi said. “Building the brand is the hard part. That’s what we’re doing now. It’s a saturated market but our bars speak for themselves because of the clean ingredients.”
This year, the owner said, will be dedicated to approaching new gyms and markets, as well as spreading the word about Muscle Up Bars through social media and other outlets. Leonardi said they may partner with meal preparation delivery services to boost business.
“Our target is anyone who is looking for a healthy source of protein,” he said. “It is the original sweet potato bar. Sweet potato is nature’s best carbohydrate.”
Leonardi and Aleks have pledged to give 25 percent of the profits from Muscle Up Bars to scholarships for graduating high school seniors going into the exercise sciences field.
“We are committed to doing our part to nurture the future of health and fitness,” Leonardi said, adding that the company has yet to become profitable. “It’s a volume business. We have to sell a lot of bars to become profitable.”
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