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April 7, 2010

Donald and the CLIF Bar Factory

“All the other chocolate makers, you see, had begun to grow jealous of the wonderful candies that Mr Wonka was making, and they started sending in spies to steal his secret recipes ... and while they were there, each one of them found out exactly how a certain special thing was made ... and Mr Willy Wonka tore his beard and shouted ‘This is terrible! I shall be ruined! There are spies everywhere!’”
- Roald Dahl, From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


If you thought I was exaggerating the whole Willy Wonka aspect of our trip to CLIF Bar and Company, consider these screening questions I was asked by my contact person while setting up the field trip:

1) Are you or any of your friends employed in any capacity by a competitor of CLIF? And …

2) Are you planning to bring a camera on your visit?

I passed the first question with flying colors, but got tripped up on the second. If you’ve read this blog for more than 30 seconds, you know that I planned to have a camera with me. Actually, the rep knew that as well; the question was mainly a jumping off point to a longer discussion about which things would be “on the record” and which would remain unreported. Apparently spy tactics aren’t out of the question in the energy food business, and CLIF has a vested interest in keeping their special secret things – especially those that have yet to be released – a secret.

I wouldn’t say the atmosphere was one of paranoia … but let’s just say it wouldn’t have entirely surprised me if some suited-up CLIF agent was waiting for my friends and me with one of those Men In Black memory erasers upon our exit. In hindsight, I’m glad that didn’t happen, because our afternoon at the CLIF shop was one of the coolest the three of us have spent in quite a while.

Another Wonka-like element to the whole company is the incredible loyalty and enthusiasm of almost every single person who works there - except in this case, the work force doesn’t consist of pygmy Oompa-Loompas, but real-life flesh and blood people just like you and me. Check that: just like you and me, but with MUCH cooler jobs. CLIF’s employee satisfaction and retention are legendary; the company topped Outside Magazine’s list of Best Companies to Work For in 2008, and the perks and privileges the employees receive are almost difficult to fathom in an era of widespread cutbacks and downsizing.

Our glimpse into the world of CLIF Bar and Company lasted only a few hours, but it left some impressions that will last a very long time. Of course, it helps to have a camera along to chronicle things – and with that, we’ll start the report. Plus, as extra incentive to read the whole thing, there’s a giveaway drawing of at the end of the post. (I know, you could just scroll down there now … but I consider this an honor system kind of thing. If you can face yourself in the mirror while eating a box of CLIF products when you didn’t actually learn anything about the company, I guess I can’t change your mind.)

We were met at the door by Communications Manager Dean Mayer, who would serve as our tour guide for the afternoon. He had a full agenda arranged for us upon our arrival, which started with leading us through the main office area to the employee showers, so we could clean up from the morning’s rainy 21-miler. They even offered us towels in case we had forgotten our own.

It’s worth pointing out that when I first paraded through the office, I was barefoot, dripping in rain- and sweat-drenched clothes, muddy from the waist down, and most likely reeking to high heaven … and none of the employees reacted as if this was one bit out of the ordinary. Nearly everyone who works for the company is an athlete of some kind, and as you’ll see, CLIF has several ways of actively encouraging its employees to do whatever healthy activities they enjoy.

After showering, we assembled in a conference room on the other side of this auditorium area. There, we had a catered lunch waiting for us, and we got to speak with Chris Randall, Brand Manager for the CLIF SHOT line of products. Remember that athlete thing I mentioned? Chris has the Ironman World Championships on his resume – and it wasn’t a lottery selection; he earned his way in. Chris was also the one who gave us advice on which trails to check out on our morning’s run, which turned out to be amazing. Needless to say, it only took me about a split second to like the guy.

Chris showed us all of the products he’s responsible for, and explained how CLIF is striving for a diverse line of all-natural products with varying tastes and textures, for various nutritional purposes. He also emphasized how CLIF uses organic ingredients as much as possible; some products contain 85% organic content, and their goal is to push that number to 100%.

Since we had finished our lunches by now, the product showcase also became a product tasting exercise, as we got to try samples of everything in sight. Some of the items we tried fall under the “I’m not allowed to talk about it” clause – but trust me, everything was awesome. Fortunately, one of the new products is currently on the market, and will be part of the giveaway drawing.

There’s a movement in parts of the food industry for “simple food” using a limited number of natural ingredients; CLIF’s entry in this field is the C Bar. The whole bar has just 9 ingredients, primarily a combination of fruit and nuts, with a dash of salt for taste. These bars are somewhat small, but each provide a full serving of fruit, and they taste delicious as well. (At least, the three or four that I pounded did.)

Once we were fully stuffed on lunch and samples, we started a tour of the facilities, starting with this indoor amphitheatre, which is used for team meetings as well as concerts, movie screenings, and talent shows. One thing became evident fairly quickly on the tour: CLIF employees sure like to have fun, in a lot of different ways.

I didn’t take this picture; I scanned it from a company brochure. I put it here because the next stop on our tour was to look inside the research and development kitchen, which was VERY clearly designated a “no photo” area. We did, however, get to peek in the doorway, where we saw four chefs happily assembling all kinds of secret concoctions, with shelves of natural ingredients all around them, racks of experimental products nearby in various stages of completion, and a rich chocolate waterfall cascading in the background. OK, I made up one of those things … but the whole kitchen scene was quite cool. And I’m pretty sure that’s all I’m allowed to say.

Continuing our tour, we saw one little staff lounge …

… directly across from a larger one, complete with a library. In the background here you’ll notice some free weights and a rock wall, which employees can use at any time. CLIF not only allows their employees to exercise during work hours - they actively encourage it. Anyone is allowed to take time out before, during, or after work to exercise, and 30 minutes of this time can be on the clock. And if rock climbing or free weights aren’t your thing …

… you can work out in the larger fitness room, which is adjacent to a hardwood dance and aerobics studio. If you need guidance towards reaching your fitness goals – whether it’s losing 10 pounds or climbing Kilimanjaro – CLIF employs two in-house athletic trainers with whom you can schedule personal training sessions.

If you need help freshening up after your workout, you can stop into the beauty salon and get some professional assistance with your ‘do. There’s also a washer and dryer you can use to launder your workout clothes before you go home for the day, or for apartment dwellers to save a handful of quarters on their regular laundry rotations.

All this is inside the building, but if you just need to leave the office behind for a while …

… you can store your bike in the warehouse and take off for a midday ride. Walking around the premises, we saw a lot of bikes parked in cubicles in addition to this designated area. Given CLIF’s origins, it’s not surprising that the company has a lot of cyclists – and once a year, the company holds a 150-mile bike ride (with shorter options available) to commemorate founder Gary Erickson’s 1990 revelation that the few energy bars on the market at that time pretty much sucked.

Another stash of bicycles symbolizes one of CLIF’s eco-friendly efforts called the 2-Mile Challenge. Basically, the premise is this: in the US, more than 90% of trips under 2 miles are done by car. If enough people consistently walked or used a bike for those everyday short errands, the atmospheric impact would be significant. So if you work at CLIF and need to drop off a project at Kinko’s, or want to go to the local deli for lunch, you can hop on a company-issued bike to get you there. This program doesn’t have anything to do with making good food, but it’s an example of CLIF’s multiple social responsiblity projects - and it also solves the problem of trying to find street parking in Berkeley.

Perhaps the most admirable way that CLIF positively impacts its community is with Project 2080. The company’s goal is for its 200+ employees to collectively donate the number of hours of one full-time person to volunteerism. There's a schedule posted of various projects throughout the year, and you just sign up for one you’d like to help with. You’ve probably already guessed this, but CLIF pays the employees for the time they spend doing this volunteer work.

This is probably a good time to mention a couple other employee perks for which I don’t have photo accompaniment: 1) Employees can choose a 9/80 schedule where you work nine 9-hour days, getting one extra day off every two weeks, and 2) For every 7 years you work at the company, you can take a paid 6-week sabbatical. Predictably, many of the employees do exotic, crazy things like biking across the country, doing an Australian walkabout, or touring Mayan ruins. If you have an adventurous spirit, you’d definitely get along here.

As we toured the offices, the overall vibe of the place was that people really like working here; the company becomes a part of them just as they become a part of the company. In addition to bikes and other sports equipment in cubicles, there are all kinds of personal accessories everywhere you look. I happened to like this one with the poster for “hemp brownie” flavor CLIF bars, which I think Californians will get to vote on this November. It initially reminded me a bit of the infamous 15 Pieces of Flair requirement, until I realized that these displays are obviously sincere. These folks love this place.

(Side note #1: CLIF is also a dog-friendly office, with canine companions hanging out all over the place in the offices. I’m told this is awesome – but since I’m not a dog person, I’ll have to take their word for it.)

(Side note #2: If you’re dusting off your resume right about now in hopes of putting in for a transfer to CLIF, take a number. Dean tells me they receive applications “in the hundreds” for every job opening that comes along – not that they come along that often.)

Despite all the cool stuff we had seen, the highlight of the tour was meeting Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, husband and wife co-owners of CLIF. They popped out of their offices to introduce themselves, to ask about our trail run that morning, and to see if we were being well taken care of. How many CEOs go out of their way to see how the visiting blogger is doing? Probably not many. These two were as nice as you could ever imagine, which in hindsight shouldn’t have been all that surprising.

We also discovered that Gary and Kit have started making private label wine. For some reason, this wasn’t part of the sampler buffet offered earlier in the day. Maybe when I start my just-now-inspired Monterey County Wine blog (tentatively titled Drinking and Rambling – what do you think?), I’ll make a return visit.

Before our departure for the day, two final treats awaited us …

One was a 15-minute massage from Kate, one of two massage therapists contracted by CLIF to be on the premises four days per week to provide free massages to employees whenever they need her. I mean … are you kidding me? If everything we had seen before was intended to impress us, this gesture was just piling on. In the best possible way, of course.

And since Kate couldn’t massage all three of us at once, we also took turns going here:

The warehouse’s open bar of every conceivable CLIF product, available to employees at any time of day, where Dean instructed us to help ourselves. He then pulled some empty cardboard boxes off the shelf and told us to fill them up for the drive home. If our favorite items weren’t on these shelves, he opened a new box from the warehouse for us. Whatever the grown-up version of “kid in a candy store” is, that was me standing in front of these shelves. It was all I could do to avoid going into full-on Augustus Gloop mode while cramming my box to the top; it’s surprising how many bars you can fit in there when you pack them tightly, and lean your forearm on the pile every few minutes to compress everything down. I have to say I was pretty satisfied with my haul.

Truthfully, there wasn’t anything about our afternoon at the CLIF factory that was less than completely satisfactory – and believe me, I’ve only described a portion of the programs and benefits that the workers there enjoy. My friends and I spent most of our drive home marveling at how a single company can constantly manage to find more ways to have a positive impact – from customer satisfaction to employee morale to community involvement to ecological and social responsibility – when it seems like 99% of the companies out there are so intensely focused on finding ways to do less.

So in true CLIF spirit, and as a reward of sorts for wading through a 2500-word report (remember: honor system!), I’m sharing the love with a few lucky readers. Leave a comment on this post before 5PM PST on Saturday, April 10, and three winners will be selected to receive a special goody box from CLIF. The boxes will include the new C Bars described above, along with the protein ROKS that I reviewed a few months ago, and some gel BLOKS for your next long training sessions. And with that, we’ll call this one a wrap.


“Charlie was in a whirl of excitement. Everything that he had seen so far … had been so astonishing that he began to wonder whether there could possibly be any more astonishments left.

‘Isn’t it marvelous?’ said Grandpa Joe, grinning at Charlie.
Charlie nodded and smiled.”
- Roald Dahl, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory


jhamani i 4/7/10, 9:16 PM  

Wow! It's wonderful to hear that Clif not only believe in their products, they also believe in the people behind the products. Great story! What a way to end a 21 mile run. A lot of companies can benefit from treating their employees as well as Clif.

Road Warrior 4/7/10, 9:20 PM  

Awesome. So good to see the "insides" of such a great company.

Turi 4/7/10, 9:50 PM  

Wow. Now THAT's an employer. Good call on the Roald Dahl reference.

Gretchen 4/7/10, 11:11 PM  

Ha! See, I knew you weren't a dog person. You can't fool me.

TK 4/8/10, 4:39 AM  

What a fantastic way to spend the day! Do you still have your "golden ticket"?

Al Nye 4/8/10, 4:43 AM  

What a great way to do research on a delicious product. Good job with reporting on such an interesting company.


rbrown10 4/8/10, 5:03 AM  

Great to see there's an employer who still cares about the environment and their employees, and not just when it's good for business. Makes me want to go buy a clif bar!

Jeff 4/8/10, 5:23 AM  

Gary Erickson needs to write a book. I would love to see how he got from cooking up a better-tasting energy bar in his mom's kitchen to the awesome company he runs today.

Ray 4/8/10, 6:12 AM  

Great write-up Donald! As if I didn't like Clif products enough already.....

Puller 4/8/10, 6:14 AM  

I really really want to work there now! That sounds like the sweetest place to work!

Barefoot AngieB 4/8/10, 6:21 AM  

That sounds amazing! I had no idea the company was so awesome. That just propelled Clif to the top of my new favorite list! I love the electrolyte drink and blocks and now to know how they were made with such care makes me even happier :)
I want to support a business like that!

adam 4/8/10, 6:58 AM  

Loved the write up almost as much as I love Clif products! I too would love to see a book from Gary in the next few years, I would think it would be along the lines of Let My People Surf by Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia).

Anyways, great writing as always Donald and I hope to pick up one of your goodie bags!

Meg T 4/8/10, 7:29 AM  

Wow! I'm so jealous. I want to work there. It looks amazing. Thanks for the giveaway.

Sparkplug 4/8/10, 8:07 AM  

Wow! I have always like Clif products, but like them even more after reading about how good of a company they are. Thanks for the virtual 'tour'! Also, always enjoy reading your posts despite living on the other side of the country :-)

treymeadows 4/8/10, 8:16 AM  

Holy Geez! My chocolate chip clif bar I'm going to eat during my team's track practice today will taste even better knowing I'm supporting a company that awesome!

Eric,  4/8/10, 8:21 AM  

WOW, Are they hiring and where do I apply for the job....

Sports Dave 4/8/10, 9:00 AM  

Ooooooooo I like goodies from CLIFbar.

Ling-ru 4/8/10, 9:05 AM  

I think my job satisfaction just dropped by several percentage points...thanks so much for posting this. It's good to know that some companies are the "real deal" as opposed to just putting on a good social/environmental face. See you at Quicksilver in a few weeks.

jeff 4/8/10, 9:18 AM  

i remember first coming across the clif bars back in the day. i've been happy with their products over the years and even more happy to support a company of their caliber.

so glad you had such a great experience there, donald!

Jason 4/8/10, 9:28 AM  

Great article. I wish more companies treated their employees this way. Now that I know what kind of company Cliff is, they will have me as a loyal customer.
BTW, are these tours only open to popular bloggers, or can any person get this kind of 5 star tour?

Robby 4/8/10, 9:49 AM  

Ohhhh, very jealous!

Sean 4/8/10, 9:54 AM  

Wow. It's incredible to see a company that really cares for it's employees and employees that really care for the company. I love Clif products. Now I wish I worked for them. lol

Dug Deep.,  4/8/10, 9:57 AM  

Great products AND a great company. Just one more reason to choose Cliff over anything else

HomeListingLeads.com 4/8/10, 10:02 AM  
This comment has been removed by the author.
JBK in CA 4/8/10, 10:09 AM  

So, which running partner got sucked up the tube full of chocolate and which turned purple? Who said Ultra athletes don't have time to have a life? Thanks for the first hand account of a model corporate citizen!

The Dude 4/8/10, 10:20 AM  

Great post again and I would have loved to have seen the 5,000 word version of this post!

Michael Shane Helton 4/8/10, 10:36 AM  

This was an awesome report. I have been a CLIF bar fiend for years (and have converted many others) but I had no idea they had such a great office. Thanks for the incredible write-up.

Oh, I would love to win some CLIF swag because I have only tried the original...none of the new products.

James Godfrey 4/8/10, 10:57 AM  

Wasn't thrilled with the original Clif products, but the new stuff I've tried over the last year or so have been great: Nectar (not for training, but good snack throughout the day); Clif Bloks, etc. I never thought of them as being really athletic--only posing to sell product, but the new stuff out now, along with your report, convinces me that the company is real. Thanks.

Jeff 4/8/10, 11:02 AM  

Great stuff. Looks like a great company doing great things

Anonymous,  4/8/10, 11:06 AM  

I now hate my job....

KarenM,  4/8/10, 11:08 AM  

Sorry, forgot to provide my name above...

Andreas 4/8/10, 11:14 AM  

Wow! That sounds like a great company to work for! I hope that I can find something half as good at least for my next job!

jason elliot 4/8/10, 12:13 PM  

Thanks for the report! I've long been a fan of the CLIF company and your report just reinforces my feelings about them. I'm glad to hear the extent to which they truly are giving back to their community and environment. Their employees are very lucky.

JT Mize 4/8/10, 12:17 PM  

Incredible place to work. More companies could learn a lot from this. That kind of atmosphere has to build great camaraderie.

d 4/8/10, 1:51 PM  

Thanks for the report. Companies like this deserve loyal customers.

Dave 4/8/10, 2:28 PM  

Love what they are doing at Clif! Always been a big fan.

steve v.,  4/8/10, 3:59 PM  

Awesome. I've been hooked on Clif Bars for years now. I love 'em!

ToshiMoshi 4/8/10, 4:08 PM  

I'm applying for CLIF right now!

Bob 4/8/10, 7:08 PM  

Wow..you really did win a golden ticket! What an amazing place...I'm really going to try to buy from CLIF more and more now!

Magnolia 4/8/10, 8:26 PM  

I love CLIF. I was originally hooked by the litter leash on their gels. Thanks for the inside look at the company.

Aaron,  4/8/10, 8:46 PM  

Seriously, if they need any IT people, I'm totally available. That looks like a great place to work.

Josh 4/8/10, 9:12 PM  

so jealous! of you. of the employees. wow.

Spokane Al 4/8/10, 10:27 PM  

Wow - a terrific report on a great company combined with the chance to win some free stuff generates a boat load of well deserved comments!

Keep rocking, running a writing Donald.

Brooks 4/9/10, 6:02 AM  

I would have found it impossible not to skip from room to room! What an amazing company!

Richard 4/9/10, 6:24 AM  

Wow! Great report. Gives me some good ideas to propose to my employer (like the 9\80).


CleanAirKevin 4/9/10, 7:01 AM  

Love them & Love their products - This was a great read (as always)

I own and run Clean Air Lawn Care down in Orange County and always take their bars and Blocks with me while out in the field!

joe 4/9/10, 8:16 AM  

Great Review. Love the bike friendliness of Clif. My favorite product: Roks. Roks Rock!

Michael Shane Helton 4/9/10, 9:27 AM  

I wonder if I post again I can sneak in another chance to win? muwahahaha.

Chad 4/9/10, 10:57 AM  

Looks like a great place to work. I love the scheduling options!

Thorsten 4/9/10, 12:39 PM  

great mouth-watering article! Especially since we can't get Cliff Bar stuff over here in Germany, I'm really hoping to be one of the lucky three! I need some more Bloks for my upcoming Ironman this summer ..
Love the blog!

Paul 4/9/10, 12:56 PM  

It's unfortunate the business practices such as CLIF's are not the norm. The company proves that you don't have to abuse employees and trick customers to be successful.

daysrun 4/9/10, 1:27 PM  

I've tried to kick off healthy living items at my work, but in the end, the almighty dollar wins out. Nice to see a company be successful while also looking out for employee moral and well-being. Way to go!

DiscoStugotz 4/9/10, 2:53 PM  

Bummer, no Data Center pics... Fantastic products, and fantastic company from the sounds of it. Thanks for the education!

Nevin 4/9/10, 4:46 PM  

Wow...Amazing company with amazing products. I think I need a change of career!

DebbieJRT 4/9/10, 5:16 PM  

Boy, am I jealous of those employees! Looks like the tour was fun.

FroggyRun 4/9/10, 7:19 PM  

It's so refreshing to see a company with great social and environmental awareness. I'm was a big fan of Clif products before this post, and now that I realize what a great company they are it makes me love them even more!

Joe 4/9/10, 8:51 PM  

Sounds like such a great place to work that I'd walk all the way from Texas if offered a job there (fueled by Clif products of course). An inspiring model for any business owner.

Em 4/9/10, 9:23 PM  

It's sad that more companies don't treat their employees like this.

Mm, but I do like a carrot cake CLIF bar from time to time.

Dave Chan 4/9/10, 9:59 PM  

Great trip report. That place looks awesome!

The BIG E 4/10/10, 5:22 AM  

Very cool company. The companies I have toured in Cali actually have similar company moral. Maybe not all the perks, but I think many companies are moving more towards this approach.


Travis 4/10/10, 5:30 AM  

Great coverage of a really cool company. You can put my name on the list of people who would love to work there.

Chris 4/10/10, 8:17 PM  

Discovered your blog recuperating from foot surgery. Love your comprehensive product reviews. and love socially conscious companies like CLIF! They don't need a neuropsychologist on staff, do they? sigh. Have really liked their newer products, (though would not mind their nixing honey so more would be vegan). Looking forward to tasting others, esp as I try my hand at longer distances when the recuperating foot's ready

sara 4/18/10, 3:44 PM  

much of what you wrote about CLIF makes me think of Google ... which is very awesome. i don't suppose CLIF will ever have a need for a nurse? one can dream ... in the mean time, i will continue using their products. great review, glad you got to check the place out!

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