How Crohn's disease inspired a great business idea

Troubled by Crohn's disease since the age of 12, Cathy Richards decided to leave her six-figure job to develop healthy snacks she, and others like her, could eat on the go.

Lemon Coconut Simply Bar

Lemon Coconut Simply Bar (Photo via Facebook).

In 2008, after years of struggling with stomach issues, I decided to visit a nutritionist to once and for all figure out what was causing me so much digestive unrest. When an elimination diet showed that I was sensitive to eggs, wheat and dairy I was relieved to find the cause, but stressed out about what I would eat going forward.

After weeks of reading every food label in the grocery store (for the first time in my life) and realizing that shopping was going to be more difficult (why does every can of soup have wheat in it?) my nutritionist suggested I try Simply Bars. I was relieved to find a snack that I could easily throw in my bag that wasn’t full of artificial flavours and ingredients and didn’t taste like cardboard.

When the opportunity came up to speak with Simply Bar founder (and Canadian) Cathy Richards I couldn’t resist. After being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 12, undergoing major treatments, Richards quit her six-figure business consultant job and wrote a book about the disease. Wanting to put her business experience to use, she founded Wellness Foods, a company that develops foods for people with digestive difficulties. That was a decade ago, and her products are continuing to grow. Read on for more from Richards:

Q: What got you into making these bars? 
A: I travelled a lot and had a really tough time finding a snack that didn’t upset my stomach. Back then there were no gluten-free snacks. Now there are some gluten-free protein bars, but they often have too much fat and sugar. I needed something gluten- and dairy-free, low in sugar and fat. I had no experience making anything like this (I am definitely not a cook). I learned how to do this while formulating the bars at the Guelph Food Technology Centre.

The Simply Bar range

The Simply Bar range

Q: How does Crohn’s change the way you eat? 
A: I was diagnosed 28 years ago. I had a tough time as a kid and there were months at a time when I didn’t eat real food but had to drink Ensure or else just have nutrition through tube feeds. Those months were probably the real genesis of this. I became obsessed with food and healthy eating. It was also clear to me that food could make me sick or healthy.

Q: What’s the best part about making a product in Canada?
A: Canadians are really supportive of Canadian products. When we first started, we ran a contest and asked people to tell us why they liked the bar. Being Canadian was the third-most important feature. I had no idea that being Canadian mattered so much. I now also look for Canadian products — there are a number of really cool food companies based here.

Q: What’s the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur in the health industry?
A: There is no one who rewards you or tells you that something was great. I do miss that. The best thing is getting to wander around food stores as part of my job! I love that!