Jennifer Maxwell and her new company JAMBAR
By Leonie Sherman
Jennifer Maxwell’s degree in food science, along with her athletic background, inspired the creation of PowerBar, widely considered the first energy bar. But it’s her passion and resilience that nurtured her six children after their father passed away and led to JAMBAR, a whole food bar that nurtures the body while contributing to her local sports and music community.
Maxwell grew up in Bolinas, the magical Marin enclave famous for removing road signs that might bring outsiders to their slice of paradise. In a glorious Mediterranean climate and a house without TV, being outdoors nurtured her imagination and body. She started running at an early age and competed in triathlons before enrolling at UC Berkeley, where she studied how food contributes to athletic performance, and met her husband Brian.
“Together, we embarked on making PowerBar,” Maxwell explains. “We created an entirely new food category, there were no energy bars you’d eat before working out.” They started in 1985, before she even graduated from college, fulfilling mail orders out of their basement. Their original clients were cyclists, runners, and other athletes, though as the energy bar market expanded so did their consumer base.
And their family. In 1988, Maxwell graduated with a bachelor’s degree in food science and married Brian. The next year they welcomed their first child; five more followed. “I love being a mom, it came really easy to me, but raising a family and growing a business, whew,” Maxwell laughs. “It was a very busy time.”
Twelve years after starting PowerBar, they sold the company to Nestle. In 2004, just four years later, Brian died suddenly during a run. “He had a congenital heart defect, and waited too long to get a valve replaced,” explains Maxwell. She was left with six children, the oldest 16 and the youngest only seven months. The trauma of losing her partner was a shock to her entire system. “It took me two or three years before I could function again,” she recalls.
“I went to a lot of music concerts in the year after he passed,” explains Maxwell. Music helped her transform the pain and loss. “Drums really spoke to me, so in 2007 I started playing. It took about 10 years before I got any good, but now I’m in two bands.”
“So now I’m a musician,” reflects Maxwell. “I’ve been a food scientist and athlete my whole life. Music and sports have both been coping mechanisms for me. Everyone needs some kind of an iron rod that protects their sanity, something to hold onto that keeps them grounded.”
Maxwell decided to combine her twin passions into a money-making project that nurtures her body, her immediate circle of friends and an expanding group of athletes. “I’ve created a business and a bar that promotes those things that saved me,” Maxwell says with a contented sigh.
Six years ago she found herself in a situation familiar to many foodie athletes. “I was sitting at the kitchen table with my daughter lamenting that there was no energy bar out there I wanted to eat,” she remembers. Like Goldilocks she found them either too sweet, or too processed, or too bland. “My daughter pointed out that with my background I should be able to make something better than what’s out there.”
There at the kitchen table, the JAMBAR was born. Five years later, in October of 2021, they sold their first bar. Now JAMBARs are available at cafes, health food stores, bike shops and gift boutiques throughout California, as well as direct to consumer via their website (the company made a conscious decision to not sell their bars on Amazon). JAMBAR is expanding to markets in Oregon, Massachusetts, Idaho and Florida. Maxwell employs 10–15 people, many of whom she’s known for decades.
“Fifty percent of our profits go to music and active living,” she explains. JAMBAR is a major sponsor of the California Jazz Conservatory, and donates money and bars to a dozen organizations, including a music school in Haiti, an after-school bike program, and the Tamalpa Runners Club. They are a title sponsor of the local mountain bike event, Ales for Trails, as well as the Cookout Concert Series, a music series held at HopMonk Tavern in Novato.
“JAMBAR is all about education, performance, community involvement, getting people outside, the transformative power of music, helping kids learn to play an instrument …” Maxwell’s voice trails off, lost in her own excitement. “But at the center of our mission is a commitment to making a super high quality product.”
That process starts with the highest quality ingredients. “We use maple syrup, because it’s a live whole food. The available water in our bars is very low, so the shelf life is at least a year. And we use sunflower protein,” she explains. “It’s super expensive, so almost nobody uses it, but it has very little flavor, almost no after taste, and a very high protein efficiency.”
All of which means JAMBARs are expensive to make, but they retail for between $2.99-3.49, comparable to other high end whole food bars. “We don’t gouge the consumer, we are a small private company and we will always remain private and relatively small,” explains Maxwell. “That allows us to maintain our focus — being involved in the local music and sports community while making a high quality, tasty energy bar.”
Food, of course, can be more than just what a person chews on. “Part of how we eat is philosophical, what do you want to put in your body?” Maxwell explains. “I like to be close to nature, so I try to eat what is in nature, whole foods. That allows me to be more in tune with everything, including what’s going on in my body.”
Though she embraces health foods, she believes fixating on specific diets and excluding certain foods can lead to guilt, and reinforce shame and other negative feelings around eating. “Food should bring joy into your life and not guilt,” she says. “You want to focus on how food makes you feel.”
The pure whole food ingredients of JAMBARs make a body feel good, and the knowledge that every purchase supports local athletes and musicians creates a positive feedback loop. Look for them in local stores throughout California.
MAIN IMAGE: Jennifer Maxwell is a lifelong athlete who started running marathons at age 13