From Handmade to 100 Protein Bars Per Minute: Part 1

I started my protein bar business in the summer of 2014. By the end of 2016 I’d made over 100,000 bars with a pizza cutter and rolling pin. I had no life and all I did was make protein bars and prepare packaging labels.

Eventually I decided to look for a specific piece of equipment that would help with production. Known as the “Vemag 500”, it’s a commercial extruder — even as an entry level model it’s capable of producing up to 100 protein bars per minute. Hypothetically, all of the protein bars I made by hand over the course of two years could be produced in about two days by one of these things.

Sure, it was fun to think about but I didn’t have a clue where to find one. You could go directly to the distributor and buy a brand new machine, but similar to a car, you’re going to pay a premium and instantly lose money on depreciation. Way too risky if you’re just trying to get your foot in the door and don’t really know what you’re doing.

Buying a used machine wouldn’t be such a straightforward process either. These extruders are used in such a wide range of industries to make all kinds of different products like pet food, Play-Doh, sausage, baked goods, etc.. So even if you do happen to find one somewhere, the odds of finding one being used for the same application and industry were slim. Or so I thought…

Buying new from the distributor wasn’t going to happen so I turned to the first place that came to mind – eBay. I typed “Vemag” into the search box and the very first result at the top of the page was for a Vemag 500 along with an automated packaging machine, known as a “horizontal flow wrapper”. That was pretty exciting, but it got better.

When I opened and read the full description, I learned that it was listed by a husband and wife couple in Austin Texas who just sold their own protein bar company and were getting rid of all their equipment. Really? I couldn’t believe it.

After speaking with the couple over the phone I decided to buy a plane ticket, packed some underwear, and flew to Texas three days later. I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to reach a deal, but I figured it was a good excuse to at least check out Austin Texas and meet some people who had experience manufacturing protein bars. Besides, what were the odds? I couldn’t not go!

I met the couple at their facility on Sunday evening and marveled at the sight of all the shiny stainless steal equipment. Seeing pictures on eBay was one thing, but standing there in the same room with everything just a few days later was surreal. “Is this really happening?”, I thought to myself. It was happening, and it happened quickly.

From their facility, I went back to the Firehouse Hostel where I was staying in downtown Austin to think about everything.

Buying this equipment was a big commitment and came with a few risks. I had no clue how to operate any of this stuff or if my protein bar recipes would even run through it. Being used in the same application was encouraging, but these people bought the extruder directly from the distributor so it was specifically configured to operate based on the consistency, texture, viscosity, etc. of their products. Not mine.

That was just the extruder. The packaging machine came with its own set of challenges and would require rolls of “packaging film” just to operate. Designing and sourcing film was another process I had no clue about.

There were a few question marks surrounding everything, but overall, what were the odds of this scenario? What was the alternative? Chicken out and go home to my rolling pin?

By Monday evening we negotiated a deal for both the extruder and the automated packaging machine and Tuesday afternoon I arrived at their facility with a 16ft Penski moving truck. With no lift-gate on the truck it took about six hours to get everything loaded and secured. By 5:30pm I was on the road and typing “Orlando FL” into Google Maps.

Timeline for Sourcing Equipment

  • Wednesday 7/27: Found the equipment listing on eBay.
  • Thursday 7/28: Spoke with the owners and bought a plane ticket.
  • Sunday 7/31: Flew to Texas.
  • Monday 8/1: Made a deal to buy the equipment.
  • Tuesday 8/2: Loaded the equipment into 16ft Penski moving truck.
  • Tues – Thur 8/4: Drove 36 hours back to Orlando.
  • Friday 8/5: Unloaded equipment into building.
  • August – December: Prep work to run first batch.
  • January 5th 2017: First time running equipment after 5 months of anticipation…

Getting home took about 36 hours. I was already accustomed to sleeping on a cot back in Orlando so I just stopped at Walmart and bought another one. This way I didn’t need to bother with hotels. Whenever I started feeling tired I’d just pull off the highway, climb into the back of the truck, and take a catnap on my cot.

My favorite stop was Perdido Pass in Orange Beach AL. Neighboring the Florida panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico, it was the perfect spot to kick back with fish tacos and a cold Corona.

Perdido Pass, Orange Beach AL. Enjoying the view from my cot in the back of the Penski truck. The Gulf of Mexico is just on the other side of that grassy ridge.

I’ve always liked road trips so the drive itself wasn’t bad. The entire time though, I was trying to figure out in the back of my mind how I was actually going to get two thousand pounds of equipment off the truck, without a lift gate, and into the building once I got back to Orlando. With no loading dock or garage door, I didn’t know if everything would even fit through the widest doorway of my facility.

It was a really precarious operation, but using the lift gate on a second rental truck and some muscle, I managed to pull it off with the help of my friend.

I returned from Austin Texas on August 5, 2017 with the new equipment. From that point it took exactly five months of additional preparation and planning just to run the first test batch of Macaw! Bars.

Designing/sourcing rolls of packaging film, final recipe & nutrition review, sourcing larger volumes of ingredients, electrical upgrades on my facility, designing/machining custom teflon parts, etc.. It was a lot of work, anticipation, and buildup just to find out if everything was even going to work. And on Thursday January 5th, 2017 I got my answer. Just not the one I was hoping for. The first manufacturing attempt was a complete disaster…

It was 1am by the time I fell asleep on my cot that night and I didn’t even have any finished protein bars. Just a bunch of Hefty garbage bags filled with 100’s of dollars of wasted ingredients and the industrial extruder that I hauled from Texas was clogged so bad it wouldn’t even start up when I pressed the green power button.

I watched five months of hopeful preparation and thousands of dollars go down the drain in a matter of 16 hours. Still coated with date paste and protein powder, I woke up Friday morning figuring the equipment was broken and that I’d now have to put it back on eBay to try recouping some of the cost. Back to square one.

But later that morning I made a phone call that would change everything…

Click Below to Read Part 2

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