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.