Aaron Ingley and Julia Erickson are partners on and off stage—and now, in business. (Nick Coppula)
When Julia Erickson and Aaron Ingley fell in love with dance—and each other—they had no idea their passion would result in a successful food business. Well into their professional ballet careers, the pair became dissatisfied with the lack of nutrition and plethora of artificial ingredients in energy bars. And so they created their own, appropriately named Barre.
The two started their dance careers nearly 3,000 miles apart—Ingley at the Southern Academy of Ballet Arts in Tallahassee, FL, at age 13, and Erickson at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School at age 7. They met when Ingley went to study at PNB in 1996, and they started dating a year and a half later. Ingley became a member of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 1999, and Erickson joined him in 2001. She’s now a principal with the company, while Ingley, who left PBT in 2008, recently graduated from University of Pittsburgh and is a freelance dancer.
For years, they discussed their frustration with energy bars, which tasted bad, didn’t have enough protein and were full of questionable ingredients. Erickson found that the snacks that gave her proper fuel—like granola and trail mix—made a mess of her costumes or the studio floor. One night in 2010, she came home from work determined to make a better option. “I’ve always been a foodie,” she says. “And I love experimenting in the kitchen.”
Erickson reached for staple performance-enhancing ingredients she already had: dried fruits, like dates for their antioxidants and cranberries for their anti-
inflammatory properties; raw nuts, like pecans, which are rich in potassium, calcium and iron; oats for fiber; and a pinch of sea salt for natural electrolytes, so she could skip the sugary Gatorade. She began making a different version every couple of days, and she and Ingley quickly knew she was on to something. “The bar tasted really good,” she says. “I ate it before rehearsal and it gave me awesome energy without making me feel bloated. Once I figured it out, I wanted to share it with the dance community.”
She started bringing variations of the gooey snack into the studio to share with her co-workers, and many of them said they would buy it if it were on the market. With the PBT dancers as their willing guinea pigs, Erickson and Ingley perfected the recipe for Barre’s debut flavor, called Pirouette Cinnamon Pecan. They spent days in their kitchen cooking, shaping and packaging what would be the first batch of Barre bars for sale. Many of their dancing friends even donned hair nets to help. The new products were sold for $2 apiece at the PBT summer program. “We sold a lot and saw that there was a market,” Erickson says. “The students were really into them.” They decided to officially go into business.
Since business classes aren’t part of a classical ballet dancer’s training, the pair was unsure what the next step would be. So Erickson approached PBT sports dietician Leslie Bonci, who was immediately on board. She directed them to a food lab to have the product analyzed; the food lab suggested a manufacturer, who introduced them to a company that produces packaging. Then, they organized meetings with Pittsburgh philanthropists to raise start-up money.
Barre made its official debut at the 2011 Dance Retailer News Expo in Las Vegas—less than a year after Erickson threw away her trail mix. “We felt like everyone in the dance retail world was a bit taken aback—in a good way,” Erickson says. “It was a great affirmation that as dancers ourselves, we understand what dancers need, and we’re able to meet those needs.”
Currently, Barre has three flavors, all made with ingredients everyone can pronounce. They’re sold across the country, including at Steps on Broadway, the NYC boutiques for Freed, Gaynor Minden and Sansha, select Whole Foods Market stores and Giant Eagle grocery stores.
Erickson and Ingley attribute much of their success to their passion for their product and their ability to “tap into the dance network.” All of the Barre team members—who distribute samples at Whole Foods, design the Barre packaging and photograph the product—are current or former dancers. “Barre didn’t start with the business in mind,” Ingley says. “It started with the dancer’s performance in mind.” That’s why Barre contributes a portion of all its proceeds to arts education programs.
Despite their remarkable success, the couple remains humble, admitting they’re still learning as they go. “When we sit here talking about it like this, I feel like we own a real company,” Ingley says. Erickson laughs, putting her hand on his. “I think we do!”