Energy to spare: Clif Bar Q&A and profile

Kit Crawford and Gary Erickson

At the Eco-Farm conference this past January, Tom Philpott and I were suitemates. (He was also my chauffeur and backpack caddy, due to my dumb neck-nerve injury, but that’s another story.) Tom went to the Ferry Building beforehand and loaded up on wine, cheese, and other goodies for our trip to Santa Cruz. Among the bottles he bought was one with a distinctive logo discreetly embedded on the label.

Clif Bar is making wine?” I asked incredulously.

“Let me see that!” he grabbed it back. “Wow, the wine shop guy never even mentioned it. Just said it was local and a great value.”

Quite coincidentally at Eco Farm, I found myself sitting next to Kit Crawford, wife of Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson and co-CEO with him of the energy bar company, at lunch. That would be the same Kit of the Kits Killer Cab bottle of wine we had back at the hotel. The soft-spoken, very unassuming Crawford and I chatted, and I learned she and Erickson lived on a farm in Napa, and had started the winery almost on a whim to help small sustainable growers in the area. My reporter antenna went up.

This summer, Crawford and Erickson were kind enough to meet with me at company headquarters in Berkeley, just a few miles where I live. I talked to them mainly about their decision not to sell the company in 2000, to Quaker Oats for $120 million, for a business feature I write regularly called Why Aren’t They Public, for the magazine Corporate Board Member. (I’m sure you all subscribe.) The company’s values and social commitment, as embodied by Erickson and Crawford, really impressed me, and so I was disappointed when Board Member had to whack the story in half for space. But Tom came to my rescue once again, running this separate Q&A pulled from my Crawford and Erickson interview, as a Grist feature that went up yesterday. (A tiny note of wounded vanity: I am not responsible for the sentence, “A Coke machine provides the exception that proves the rule: Sustainability is a priority here.” I have never understood that phrase and don’t know what it means in this case, but…whatever.)

As I write in both articles, there are very few independent, privately owned companies left in the natural and/or organic foods business and it is worth looking at why. Clif Bar is one of the biggest and most successful, and I believe it is the least compromising. Its philanthropic commitments are significant and myriad, its ethical standards are high, and you can tell just from spending any time in the office that its employee morale is at an almost cultlike level of satisfaction. The company’s story is a fascinating one, and if you’re interested in it beyond my two pieces, I urge you to read Erickson’s business memoir, “Raising the Bar.” It’s not slick, but it’s sincere, and inspiring. I’ve researched more than a few corporations in my time, starting in the dot-com boom, and my bullshit detector is pretty well tuned for marketingspeak vs. true missions. Erickson’s book is subtitled “Integrity and Passion in Life and Business,” and it’s an accurate description. Bigger does not always mean badder.

Oh, by the way — the wine was delicious.

Photo by Bart Nagel.

5 Responsesto “Energy to spare: Clif Bar Q&A and profile”

  1. I have seen Clif Bar wine, and wondered how it was — perhaps I’ll give it a try!
    On a different note, I have a couple of friends that work at Clif Bar, and all rave about working there — it’s nice to see a company that ascribes to the ‘do no evil’ philosophy and still thrives

  2. Emily H. says:

    Too funny. We sell Clif Bar’s Syrah in our store, and it is amazing. Very big, dense wine with lots of fruit and spice. Delicious. It will also knock you over at 15.8 percent alcohol. I especially love that they grow grapes sustainably, because certified organic wines generally don’t have the best reputation for being well made.

  3. Bonnie P. says:

    Katie: So do you think that including palm oil (which I haven’t actually seen in the ingredients list myself) negates everything else Clif Bar does? I’m not defending palm oil by any means, but Ethicureanism isn’t synonymous with perfectionism. There is no 100% Ethicurean-approved mass-produced product. But the perfect is truly the enemy of the good, and I still believe it’s important to give credit where it is deserved.

  4. A company, like Clif, that promotes its eco-friendly, sustainable practices opens itself up for criticism.  I think it’s a welcome challenge for that company, however critics shouldn’t forget to acknowledge the positive aspects.  I’m a Clif Bar consumer and have read “Raising the Bar.”  Now, I’m looking forward to relaxing in my back yard at the first sight of Spring with friends and a few bottles of Clif Family wine.