Energy from honey

Steamboat's EN-R-G Foods hopes to tap into fitness market

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— Ask any bear honey has always been the most natural of quick energy foods. But it took a little company in Steamboat Springs and some honey wizards scattered around the country to give it new life.

EN-R-G Foods Inc. released a product called Honey Stinger energy gel this month. The company is based in Steamboat it shares a little red house on Oak Street with two other outdoor related companies and a bicycle repair shop.

But it might be a mistake to let the humble setting mislead you the principles in Honey Stinger envision a day when their product will hang from supermarket cash register displays nationwide.

"We're branding an old product into a new market," Bill Gamber, one of four principals in the company said.

The other three are Gamber's father, William Gamber, Bob Stahl and John Miller. William Gamber is president of Dutch Gold Honey, the largest honey packer in the United States. Stahl is a former Hershey Foods scientist and an expert in developing new food products. Miller is the owner of Miller Honey Farms, and a marathon runner.

Bill Gamber is also a principal in two other outdoor companies headquartered at 735 Oak BAP Actionwear and Big Agnes sleeping bags and pads. Big Agnes has received national attention in the last year for its innovative design, which creates a sleeve for backpackers' sleeping pads built into the bag.

Together, the men are intent on building a growing niche in the expanding market for fitness foods. Honey Stinger will compete with established energy gel manufacturers like Gu, Clif Shot and Power Gel (Quaker Foods). But Gamber is convinced his product is superior and consumers will recognize its advantages.

Gamber and his colleague Rich Hager are both endurance athletes who have become fans of energy gels. Gamber has completed 13 Ironman triathlons including four finishes in Hawaii. The two men have come to rely on products like Gu to help them attack their daily workouts with vigor. They just think they can do it better.

Hager is in charge of accounting for the new company and plays a similar role with Big Agnes. He believes Honey Stinger can exploit the fact that other energy gel companies have established the product category in the minds of hardcore athletes. Still, those companies haven't been able to create a large presence among weekend warriors.

"Honey isn't as mysterious as Gu," Hager said.

"People aren't afraid of honey," Gamber agreed. "I think our challenge will be the retail price."

Honey Stinger, which comes in three flavors with a couple more on the way, sells for $1.39 for a packet that contains just less than 1.3 ounces.

Gamber emphasizes that honey, at about $1 a pound wholesale, is more expensive than the malto dextrin and brown rice syrup his competitors use to pack quick carbos into their products.

And EN-R-G Foods doesn't use just any old honey.

"Different honeys obviously taste different," Gamber said. "The taste is a result of the kinds of flowers the bees gather pollen from."

Gamber isn't about to reveal the kind of flowers the bees that produce Honey Stinger spend their afternoons buzzing.

"Some honeys leave a little burn at the back of your throat," Gamber said. "Ours doesn't. People could try to knock us off, but they're not going to come up with what we've come up with."

Hager and Gamber hasten to add that Honey Stinger is more than just honey and water it is formulated to contain electrolytes and vitamins that speed the body's consumption of the natural sugar in honey. The ingredients include salt, potassium citrate and vitamin B complex.

The original flavors are Gold (honey), Natural Mint and "Ginsting" (Ginseng and kola nut, which adds caffeine.) Strawberry flavor will be added within days.

The 1.27-ounce packets were calculated to deliver 112 calories, slightly more than the competition, and no fat at all. Honey Stinger provides 10 percent of the daily value of carbohydrates (28 grams) based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

The Honey Stinger packets are being packed in Chicago and the company started out with an estimated four-month supply of about 60,000 packets. Hager said one of the beauties of the arrangement is that EN-R-G can quickly order additional runs of its product with a turnaround of only about a week. "We're only sticking our necks out as far as we have to," Hager said.

Gamber said the key to the success of the new product will rest with the expertise of his partners.

Stahl is a whiz at blending food products, Gamber said.

"It's unbelievable," Gamber said. "We called him to say we wanted to have a flavor with ginseng and kola nut and he said 'Hmmmm, kola nut is easy, but ginseng is powdered. That will be interesting.' Two days later, he's come up with an all-natural ginseng/kola nut/honey mixture."

Miller is the principal of Miller Honey Farms, one of the primary suppliers of the sticky stuff in the nation. Gamber's father has decades of experience in filtering and distributing honey for a large number of brand names.

Other efficiencies are being realized in Steamboat because the same core group of employees, including officer manager Melissa Minter, is working for BAP, Big Agnes and Honey Stinger.

"Having a third business almost makes it easier in some ways," Gamber said.

Consumers might ask whether honey can be legitimately claimed as a potent energy gel. A study commissioned by the National Honey Board concludes "yes."

Dr. Richard Kreider at the University of Memphis Exercise and Sport Nutrition Lab conducted three trials on endurance athletes.

"Our first study suggested honey could operate as a 'time-released' muscle fuel for exercising muscles," Kreider said. "Our second experiment suggested that honey would be a good carbohydrate source to replenish muscles. However, our last study convinced us that honey can improve endurance exercise capacity."

Honey Stinger benefited from a quick launch this month through a nationwide network of sales reps already visiting retailers on behalf of Big Agnes.

The company will mount a big push at outdoor shows geared to the backpacking and mountain biking industries later this summer. The marketing plan emphasizes introducing Honey Stinger to a core group of outdoor athletes who aren't already heavy users of energy gel. That means mountain bikers, kayakers, backpackers and other independent types.

Once that core group is solidified, En-R-G will be ready to take on the world.

"If we can hit those soccer moms and they're buying Honey Stinger for their kids, we'll be doing great," Hager said.

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