By Dora Thompson
ROCKLAND — “Hold on, I have to grab a coaster. My mom will kill me,” joked Kate McAleer, owner, founder and CEO of Bixby & Co as she put her drink down on one, saving the shining wood table in their office.
Gordon and Donna McAleer, her parents and co-workers, are close by. Their office is cozy and quirky, cluttered in candy bars and various awards. Donna nods approvingly at the coaster.
McAleer and her parents make the chocolate bars you’ve probably been seeing pop up on store shelves lately. With their powerful taste wrapped in professional packaging, you might not guess the bars come from a small family business in an old ice factory on the city’s working waterfront.
Kate McAleer is a millennial superwoman of sorts. At just 27, she was the U.S. Small Business Administration’s young entrepreneur of the year for Maine, winning the honor in May. In 2013, McAleer won a $30,000 prize through the Gorham Savings Bank Launch Pad competition, where she had to pitch her business against 150 other applicants. Her products, Bixby Bars, are now sold nationwide in 1,700 different stores, including Whole Foods, Sprouts and various other natural food chains. Bixby Bars have come a long way since their start, but the relaxed elements of family and good humor have stayed with them despite their success.
The production facility where the chocolate bars are made is in what used to be a giant freezer in the former ice factory. Large vats of chocolate sit beside a simple kitchen mixer, and a giant packaging machine that the workers call “Bix the Dragon” looms in the corner. An employee cuts the bars by hand.
While growing up, the McAleer family tried to buy organic and natural foods. And while she attended New York University, Kate was on the varsity golf team and, being health conscious, saw that many candy bars were full of additives and preservatives.
After graduating from NYU, she studied in France and China, which opened her eyes to new ways to use chocolate and spices, and made American chocolate bars seem like more of an unhealthy disgrace, she said. McAleer earned diplomas in pastry making and culinary management at the Institute of Culinary Education and set to work to make her dream a reality.
“I thought, ‘We can really clean up candy and use real chocolate, real nuts, fruits and spices.’ I had ideas about reinventing candy,” she said.
And so the college grad set to work in her mother’s kitchen, making candy bars and asking friends and family to try them.
“We definitely made some weird ones,” she laughed.
But the bars showed promise, and she asked her parents to get on board. Her mother was a full supporter from the beginning, but her father was a little harder to convince. Now Donna acts as the full time CFO of the company, while Gordon handles quality control and production management. But when it gets busy, mother, father and daughter all help make the bars themselves.
Taking the name Bixby from her great-great-grandparents, who inspired her with their American entrepreneurial endeavors, the company was born in December 2011. By 2013, they moved from New York state to Maine, where they had ties in Rockport, and where they found a supportive start-up dynamic and community in Rockland, they said.
Now, you can find Bixby Bars sold at The Strand, Archipelago (the gift store at the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront) and Main Street Markets in Rockland, and at many other retail stores in the Midcoast. Orders also can be made at the company website.
Bixby Bars stand out on the shelves because of their exceptional amount of certifications. McAleer makes sure they remain GMO free, vegan, gluten free and are made with chocolate that is ethically sourced.
Such qualities are valued by millennials, Donna observed.
“They are really focused in on their food environment and what they’re eating.”
The early days may have been a little rocky, working out of a family home. McAleer warmly recalls a night where they had to fill a large order, so she and her father stayed up the entire night making chocolate. They managed to make it through an entire Netflix series in the process.
“Those are the moments you look back on and you think, ‘Wow, we really persevered,’” said McAleer.