meet kimberly: chicago food entrepreneur

Kimberly Crupi Dobbins, Simple Squares, People with Panache

I asked Kimberly why she thinks her sweet Squares are successful. “People like the taste and the fact that it’s simple,” she says. “We’re very transparent—there are no fillers, no rice puffs, no highly processed syrups like agave. It’s just clear, whole foods that everybody knows what they are. If you had a garden—granted an exotic garden—you could find everything in your backyard.”

Food has become my biggest frenemy.

Four years ago, a typical day of food for me would have looked like this: a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich and Starbucks Caramel Macchiato to start my morning; Kraft mac and cheese for lunch; Taco Bell for dinner; coffee ice cream straight out of the tub for dessert; and, if I stayed up late, pepperoni pizza as a midnight snack. How I didn’t weigh 1,000 pounds is a miracle.

What happened instead was much more frustrating: My body turned against me. All of a sudden my body started rejecting all of these foods that were so normal and delicious to me—onions, garlic, apples, chocolate milk, creamy sauces, cookies. Everything made me feel like crap and came with a healthy dose of less-than-ideal repercussions. The most frustrating part is that, all these years later, I still have no answers. I don’t actually have any allergies or diseases or anything. I love eating and trying new foods, but I just simply can’t digest things the way I could before. It’s certainly one way to make a 26-year-old feel 86!

So the goal has been to pinpoint exactly which foods I can and can’t eat, and it’s really hard. While I know that list from my old life probably gives Alysse goosebumps to see (and we were roommates at the time!), I also can no longer imagine consuming any one of those things.

Long story short, in going through this journey, I have been learning so much about food and how bodies digest and react to things. And I can’t help but tell everyone who will listen. I’m sure my friends and family have heard more about the digestive system than they ever wanted to know, so you can imagine my delight when I met with Kimberly Crupi Dobbins in a Pret A Manger, one of the few fast casual places where I can find lots of things to eat! Not only did she know SO much about food and health and how it affects your body, but she enjoys talking about it! I got to hear all about her own food journey and how it led to Simple Squares—soft, yummy nutrition bar squares made with only real, organic, everything-free ingredients.

People with Panache: How did you come up with the idea for Simple Squares?

Kimberly Crupi Dobbins: Part of how the company began came from when I was put on an elimination diet for 60 days. I couldn’t eat wheat, gluten, dairy, soy or refined sugar. I love snacks, and I love dessert, so I found myself eating bananas and maple syrup every day. Then I started experimenting in the kitchen in a Cuisinart. I came up with a base bar of coconut. It was just nuts, honey, vanilla and sea salt.

Simple Squares, peoplewithpanache.com

“I have a lifelong desire to learn. I’m always seeking new knowledge and new opportunities. It’s definitely a journey.”

PWP: That sounds awesome right there! How did you decide on those main ingredients?

KCD: It was kind of easy because there was so much that was eliminated from my diet that I kind of took the ingredients I liked that were left and mashed them all together.

PWP: What did you learn from your elimination diet?

KCD: Now I’m a big believer in everything in moderation.

PWP: That’s definitely something I’m learning, too. Some foods hurt one time but not the next—I’m starting to notice portion size probably has something to do with it. How did you get to the flavors you have now, such as sage and rosemary?

KCD: It was summer, so I could go to the farmer’s market every Saturday and pick up fresh herbs. I thought, ‘Let’s just try something a little more sophisticated—rosemary or sage!’ And it was really good. So it was total trial and error—an experiment. And the goal was to sell at the farmer’s markets once a week. But as is the Chicago politics, I couldn’t get in. So plan B was mass distribution, which in hindsight is crazy. It worked out, though, knock on wood.

PWP: That is definitely not the norm for a plan B! Did you have a full-time job when you started experimenting with nutrition bars?

KCD: Before I went on this elimination diet, I was working at Morningstar in investment research, and they give their employees a sabbatical. After you’ve been there for four years, you get a six-week paid leave as a way of saying thanks for helping the company grow. I traveled the whole time. I loved my job, but the goal was to find more in my personal life, so I did a trip around the world and thought about what I wanted to focus on when I got back. I realized that was health and wellness.

Kimberly at her desk, peoplewithpanache.com

“People always think I’m weird because if I’m out somewhere and there’s milk, I’ll add it to my cereal, but otherwise I just add water. The spices and cinnamon and everything come out.”

PWP: WOW. I think it’s safe to say everyone is now dreaming up their own six-week adventure. Why doesn’t every company have sabbaticals?! What did you do when you got back?

KCD: I enrolled in the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York. Back then it was like an executive program, where I’d go one weekend a month to learn all about the different dietary theories from around the world. As I was getting ready to graduate, I was put on that elimination diet, so it was very timely. It was great to be in a room with 1,200 other like-minded people who don’t think you’re a freak because you want your salad dressing on the side.

PWP: Ha, yeah—it’s almost relaxing to be with people who get it. What happened next?

KCD: I still worked behind the scenes at Morningstar for three years before I branched out. They were very supportive. Eventually I took a three-month leave of absence to see if Simple Squares could launch. And it was an exciting time because you’re involved in everything. It’s like getting a real-time MBA. I know more than I ever wanted to know about design, legal, trademarks, taxes and manufacturing.

“You have to have tenacity, because there are so many times you get no for an answer.”

PWP: There’s just so much to absorb, and it’s affirming to see you gave yourself those years to grow, learn and prepare. When did you end up launching?

KCD: After my leave, I went back and resigned. I officially left three months after that, and we launched with the Natural Products Expo West show in March of 2011. It was crazy—fun and exciting and challenging!

PWP: That was such a big leap! What have you learned about owning your own business since then?

Simple Squares, People with Panache

“I do cook a lot,” Kimberly says. “I love to experiment with different herbs and spices.” All of the recipes and flavors of Simple Squares started in her kitchen!

KCD: I’m learning something new every day. I think in order to start a business, people always say you have to have passion, but that’s half of it. You also have to have tenacity, because there are so many times you get no for an answer. Our family motto has always been that as soon as you hear no, that’s when the sale begins.

You learn a lot about yourself as a person: your characteristics, your strengths, places where you can improve. Owning a business is like construction—everything takes twice as long as you think. You have to be flexible.

PWP: What is one piece of advice you’d give to someone just starting out?

KCD: Definitely identify where you may need some improvement and surround yourself with people—either a support network or employees—who have those skills. And definitely have a really solid financial plan in place. I think a lot of people start businesses on a dream and don’t necessarily think about the finances until it’s too late.

Look for Simple Squares in stores all around the US, including the Midwest, from Whole Foods to Mariano’s to Hyvee to Woodman’s! At the time of the interview, Kimberly and her crew were just getting ready to launch two new super-secret products under their parent company, Simple Brands. If you see one in stores, post a picture with it on our Facebook!

[Headshot provided by Kimberly. Other photos by Kate.]

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