“I love this homemade peanut butter for my sandwiches!” said no child, ever. Ree Dolnick’s daughter, Jessica, was no exception. “She hated the lunches I packed for her,” said Dolnick, “fresh fruit and homemade PB&J sandwiches.”
Dolnick, the founder of Jeca Energy Bars, always loved to cook. Her kitchen, naturally, she says, was like a lab. The former cancer researcher came to the task quite naturally. Her desires flowed out of a mother’s love to feed her family whole foods and fewer artificial ingredients.
Her husband, whom she met at the University at Buffalo while she was working on her graduate degree in pharmacology, delighted in her creations and encouraged her to experiment. She applied sound research techniques—just like those she was applying in her work at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center—and started creating healthy snacks like cookies and energy bars that used almonds, dates, curry, and coconut.
“Of course, my first creations didn’t work out,” she explained. “Basically, it was soggy granola that I had made. It looked terrible, but it tasted great.”
Like the scientist she is, Dolnick went back to the lab—her kitchen—and revised her methods and ingredients.
“I came up with a formula that worked,” she said. “A friend noticed what I was eating one day, and eventually word got out. When a colleague wanted to buy one, I started rethinking how far I wanted to take this.”
She took an entrepreneurial course at Medaille College, where she heard buzz words like “business plan” and met other professionals who had been where she was.
In December 2015, Dolnick registered her business and thought it would be pretty simple: create a website and ship some bars, and that should take care of it. She kept doing research at Roswell while doing her side gig part time. In May of 2016, she had a soft launch of her products, and said “it was a flop.” She received no web traffic.
The following year, she took her products to Horse Feathers Winter Market in Buffalo, where they were well received. “It boosted my confidence,” she said. Over the next several months, she did some marketing and branding, but she still wasn’t fully invested in the idea that she could—or wanted—to do this full time.
“My interest in conducting research was winding down,” Dolnick said, “and my husband encouraged me to go for it.” So she quit her job at Roswell and gave herself fully to the lab of energy bars in her kitchen.
She also took part in 43North’s One Thousand Angels Acceleration Program. An executive who was working with her said, “I hate your business plan. It won’t succeed.” Dolnick said she told her that she needed to pare down her SKUs (stock keeping units) and that her messages were too complex.
“I was totally depressed,” said Dolnick. “I questioned if my company would succeed.”
At this point, heeding advice, she began to focus only on the energy bars—the core product that had a following—and said goodbye to her energy cookies. “We went with a plant-based bar only,” she said. She focused on the message and built a team of experts who could help her get the energy bars ready for commercialization, which they were in April 2018.
Last summer, her company was recognized by 43North’s Ignite Buffalo, and she won a small business award from Facebook, which garnered her $25,000 for her company. Other than that capital, she said, Jeca Energy Bars has been self-funded.
Today, Jeca Energy Bars are available in 23 locations from Buffalo to New York City, including Whole Foods and Lexington Coop. As her company continues to grow, Dolnick is considering tracking down venture money, perhaps through Launch NY.
“When you own a business, sometimes you feel bipolar,” said Dolnick. “I constantly question, ‘Is this going to collapse?’”
The future does not look half-baked for this Buffalo entrepreneur. She is thankful for the commercial kitchen in the city that a friend lets her use, and she is looking for ways to secure her own kitchen so that Jeca Energy Bars can stay in the Queen City. “We need more facilities here for companies like mine,” she said.
“I wish I had a crystal ball,” said Dolnick, “but I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m anchored in Buffalo.”
As for the daughter who despised homemade peanut butter, she’s grown and off doing her own thing, but the energy bar she inspired is named for her. Dolnick explained that when Jessica was little, her friends pronounced her name as Jeca—the two syllables were easier than the three in Jessica. The nickname stuck.
And so have the energy bars. “I’m an empty-nester,” said Dolnick, “and I needed another Jeca.”