McAllen couple seeks to reinvent the energy bar

Photo: Hooman Amid and Irene Wazgowska, makes of Rio Energy Bar, interact with customers at the Growing Growers Farmers Market in McAllen. Credit: Photo courtesy Irene Wazgowska

BENJAMIN TREVINO | STAFF WRITER

McALLEN — Irene Wazgowska and her husband, Hooman Amid, founded Rio Energy Bar with one goal in mind: to create a product that is a healthy and savory alternative to the traditional protein bar. In 2015, the couple began experimenting in their Raleigh, NC kitchen with the goal of creating a snack that was gluten free, vegan, non-GMO, paleo, and above all, delicious.

“I had eaten hundreds of protein bars over the years and at some point I just felt like they were more like candy bars,” said Wazgowska. “I wanted something more nutritious, something savory. Right now we are at the point where we are working to identify a co-packer and do our initial run probably a few thousand units just to get it out on the market.”

Development of the Rio Energy Bar was preceded by lots of market research. Irene and Hooman started making their protein crisps in different versions when they were students at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. After moving to the Valley, they began selling their bars at local farmers markets, getting as much feedback from customers as possible. They developed several flavors along the way, including coconut curry, chipotle, mild chili, onion & poppy, paprika and spicy chili.

“They have found a niche market,” said Steve Alhenius, president and CEO of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce. “Most energy bars are really sweet. Theirs is an energy crisp that’s not sweet. It’s gluten free, it’s keto-friendly; it’s all those things that you want to see in the energy bar market. They’re doing their shelf life testing, their ingredient testing, and labeling. It’s going to be exciting to see how they move the idea forward.”

Wazgowska says a good innovator is somebody who sets out to solve a problem, whether it’s personal or an issue on a larger scale they want to make better. She says she never felt like giving up, even though their journey has been long, both geographically and metaphorically. Wazgowska urges other budding entrepreneurs to build ties with local entities like the McAllen Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Development Center at UTRGV. Irene and Hooman’s selection as a 2018 Innovation Grant winner will allow them to pursue their dream into the next phase.

“The grant is incredibly helpful, because we get to put the money toward that initial run’” said Wazgowska. “And not only is it about money it’s also about the support of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, having them as a great resource and guide and then additionally UTRGV’s SBDC. My advice is to identify the problem, believe in your solution, get market research, if you’re able to go out into the community or work with family and friends to get feedback and definitely do not give up.”

“Irene and the other winners of our innovation grants don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Alhenius said. “They just don’t quit. They’re persistent. That’s one of the key elements to be successful. The people who have been doing this a while have been told ‘no’ a thousand times, but they stay after it, and that’s the difference between the ones who make it and the ones who don’t.”

For more information on Rio Energy Bars, visit: www.rioenergybar.com. For more on the McAllen Chamber of Commerce’s Innovation Grant Awards, visit: www.mcallen.org/business-community/innovation.

2018 INNOVATION GRANT AWARDS

This is the fourth in a six-part series profiling the 2018 winners of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce’s Innovation Grant Awards. For the past 11 years, the chamber has been awarding grants of up to $10,000 to help local entrepreneurs establish, expand, develop, or advance a product or idea. In this series, each of this year’s recipients recounts their struggles and victories with the innovative process, and share their thoughts on what it means to be a business “innovator.”