AUSTIN, TEXAS — Ever since Taylor Collins and Katie Forrest started Epic Provisions, they have been getting offers from larger companies to partner with them, but they could never find quite the right fit because their company’s vision wasn’t typical. The husband-and-wife team from Austin formed their company in 2013 with a mission in mind — to create high-quality meat products sourced from humanely treated, pasture-raised animals while making a positive impact on the environment.
Over the past three years, Mr. Collins and Ms. Forrest have grown their company from offering just three meat-and-fruit bars on-line to merchandising around 20 products in stores throughout the country. They always said they would consider a partnership if they found a strategic partner that shared their vision. On Jan. 6, Minneapolis-based General Mills Inc. became that partner after it acquired Epic Provisions.
In a recent blog posted on the company’s web site, Mr. Collins explained his thought process behind partnering with a larger company.
“By doing so, we would allow Epic to have an exponentially larger impact," he wrote. "Today, we are excited to announce we have found a partner that believes in our mission, shares our vision and is committed to allowing Katie and I to continue leading Epic while adhering to our foundational values.”
The company will continue to be based in Austin, led by Mr. Collins and Ms. Forrest and staffed by their current employees. Epic will operate under the Annie’s Inc. business General Mills acquired in 2014.
“The acquisition of Epic positions General Mills for exciting growth with a highly authentic brand in an entirely new natural snacking category,” said John Foraker, president of Annie’s, in a company statement. “A purpose-driven brand like Epic perfectly aligns with the experience and capabilities set that Annie’s brings to the table. Epic has tremendous potential for growth in the natural snacking category. We’re committed to maintaining the great-tasting Epic snacks people love while further building this important brand to drive positive impact we can be proud of well into the future.”
According to Mr. Collins, General Mills’ acquisition of the Annie’s brand had a lot to do with his and Ms. Forrest’s decision to accept the offer.
“Other larger brands weren’t in line with our ideals. General Mills met our needs more,” Mr. Collins said. “Their recent acquisition of the Annie’s line showed us that they are interested in different healthful markets. They understood the legacy that we wanted to create with Epic.”
Mr. Collins and Ms. Forrest hope that growing Epic through the partnership will mean bigger and better things for the company, the brand and their mission.
“Our decision to sell Epic to General Mills will exponentially influence large-scale grassland restoration, further create a need for pasture-raised animals, as well as increase the availability of our nourishing food to consumers," Mr. Collins wrote in his blog. "This acquisition represents real change in how ‘big food’ thinks. Our greatest hope is that the continued success of Epic serves as a catalyst for other large food companies to invest in young, passionate, mission-driven brands like Epic. This acquisition is not about General Mills changing Epic, but rather Epic changing General Mills.”
Strangely enough, Mr. Collins and Ms. Forrest came up with their idea to create meat-based bar products while they were following a vegan diet. The couple — both ultra athletes who regularly participate in century bike rides, ultra marathons and triathlons — was searching for healthful ways of eating that would fuel their active lifestyle while also supporting the environment.
“We were going with the conventional wisdom that said that a plant-based diet was the best for our bodies,” Mr. Collins said. “Turns out that was the worst decision we could have made.”
As Ms. Forrest was training for Ironman World Championships and following her new vegan diet, she started to have health issues — including low energy and gastrointestinal problems. The holistic naturopath she went to for advice suggested a new approach — a diet high in animal protein and fat.
“It was a game changer for us both,” Collins said.
Soon after changing to an all-Paleo diet, the two quickly realized there was a lack of convenient packaged foods that were made of animal proteins. So they set out to make the first 100% grass-fed meat, fruit and nut bar.
To come up with product prototypes, the two tinkered in the commercial-grade kitchen they already had from a previous vegan food venture they had in college.
“We started with the foods we liked. The foods that made our bodies feel good," Mr. Collins said. "Then we turned them into bars. We took our prototypes on 100-mile bike rides to test them out. The crazier the flavors, the better they were.”
They launched Epic in March 2013 at Natural Products Expo West with three meat bars that were like nothing else on the market — Bison Bacon Cranberry (still the top seller today), Turkey Almond Cranberry and Beef Habanero Cherry.
“Within two hours of the show opening, we had already lined up national distribution with Whole Foods," Mr. Collins said. "And we were awarded the Best Brand award for that year’s show. It was a dream scenario for us — definitely not typical for a startup. We knew we had something special.”
Epic previously reported sales of $6.8 million in its first full year of business. In 2015, the company projected sales of approximately $20 million.
During its first two years, the company only offered four bars. Now there are 20 products under the brand’s umbrella — all meat-based.
“We decided to introduce some additional items because, for some, meat bars are a bit intimidating,” Mr. Collins said. “The jerky bites are a good gateway to our product line — less intimidating for most. Our trail mix also incorporates meat, and it’s more mass friendly for consumers.”
The product portfolio now includes nine meat bars, five flavors of Epic Bites (animal muscle meat combined with spices, superfood seeds and fruit), five flavors of Hunt & Harvest Mix (grass-fed beef jerky and bacon jerky mixed with berries, nuts and seeds), three varieties of meat bits (uncured bacon and chicken bits used for salad toppers) and three types of animal oils (beef tallow, pork lard and duck fat).
“We have done 100% of our product development right from the start,” Mr. Collins said. "And that should continue even following the General Mills acquisition. We have always just gone with our own ideas and trusted our gut. If we like it and our friends like it, then we give it a try in the marketplace.”
But Mr. Collins is the first to admit that not every flavor combination works.
“I have been trying to make a chocolate and meat bar from day one, but still haven’t been able to come up with something that’s good," he said. "But I’m convinced that one day we’ll figure it out — so I’m going to keep trying.”
Most of the bars contain fruit, which adds sweetness without adding sugars or syrups. But Mr. Collins says not all fruit works in the bar formulations.
“I love figs, but we’ve never had much success using them because of the seeds,” he said.
Epic’s products are currently produced and co-packed in five plants around the country.
“When we were looking for partners, we were looking for the combination of two skill sets: The understanding of making plant-based bars, but also the U.S.D.A. skill set — knowledge of how to manage and work with meat products,” Mr. Collins said.
The products have a one-year shelf life because of the meat’s preservation process, which is similar to jerky. However, Epic products are preserved without nitrates — they use natural curing methods like celery powder.
“Our methods aren’t new — they are very time-tested — it’s how people have been preserving meats for years,” Mr. Collins said.
Epic products are distributed in most natural grocery stores as well as in specialty sports stores like REI and specialty gyms like Cross Fit.
“The majority of the people who eat our products are health-conscious consumers looking for a product that contains protein but that also has a clean ingredient label," Mr. Collins said. "Our consumers are no longer just athletes."
Epic’s customers also tend to be environmentally conscious and care about how the food they eat is made and how the animals from which the food is made are raised.
“We believe that Epic animals should always live pasture-centered lives where turkeys forage, pigs wallow and buffalo roam,” Epic’s web site says. “Not only do humanely treated grass-fed animals live better, more natural lives, but they place less stress on the land they inhabit.”
Epic has always partnered with ranchers who raised grass-fed and pasture-raised animals, in addition to being antibiotic-free.
“We like the animals to be raised outdoors, eating the things that they are meant to eat,” Mr. Collins said. “We look for ranchers to produce meat for us who are raising their animals in a way that we agree with.”
Epic plans to continue to source its products in a similar fashion following its General Mills acquisition.
“This merger creates a great operational resource in the supply chain and offers more financial support for us and our co-packers,” Mr. Collins said. “We now have more opportunities and resources at our disposal.”
After the General Mills acquisition, Mr. Collins and Ms. Forrest plan to forge ahead with product development while staying true to the standards they built their company on three years ago. All they ask for in return from their loyal customers (according to Mr. Collins’ blog) is to: “Stay passionate. Continue to support and trust us. Hold us accountable to our commitments of providing consumers nourishing food that values the importance of animal welfare and land regeneration. Listen to what we say and watch what we do. If we compromise on any of our products or stray from our founding values, hold us accountable.”