Richland hemp bar company humming along

More than $1 million has been invested in Richland-based Hummingbar, providing the startup with quick success, place on grocery store shelves nationwide.

A Richland company continues to grow in local investments less than a year after churning out its first nutrition bars made from hemp.

Hilary Kelsay

Humming Hemp’s Hilary Kelsay, chief executive officer, called it a “snowball effect” since inking a national distribution deal within weeks of launching Hummingbars at an industry expo in California last year.

“The bars are plant-based, high in protein and low in sugar because it’s only sweetened by the honey,” Kelsay said. She refers to the honey as “our secret sauce” for the success of the bars, which are also gluten-free.

Kelsay’s husband is a beekeeper and together they also run Humble Honey Co., though their honey is not used in the bars.

The nutrition bars are found locally at Fred Meyer, Albertsons and Safeway stores. National distribution of the five flavors of bars began in November.

Humming Hemp also sells hemp hearts, hemp oil and hemp protein powder.

Kelsay said it’s an uphill battle to inform consumers about the health benefits of hemp products.

“If you’re not already familiar with them, you might be hesitant to pick up a bag of hemp hearts and start eating them. So we said, ‘We need to innovate. We need to tell the world about this American super food and how they should be eating it,’ ” she said.

Kelsay points to the naturally-high protein content in hemp, as well as its richness in healthy omega fatty acids, vitamin E, calcium and iron. Misconceptions arise from its status as a cannabis plant. It’s not the same plant that produces marijuana.

“Hemp is for everyone. I’m the perfect example of that: a young mom, three kids. I eat it, my kids eat it,” Kelsay said. “Whether you’re conservative or liberal, a professional athlete or a couch potato, hemp is for you. We’re just trying to accelerate that messaging. You don’t have to be a millennial male who’s into CBD (cannabidiol). We try to break down those false anecdotes about what hemp is.”

Kelsay first got into hemp at a trade show representing her family’s honey company in 2017.

She recognized a similar chutzpah in the hemp growers that she shared with her husband, Brett. She said hemp growers had “gone out on a limb to start cultivating hemp with no federal crop insurance.”

Brett had previously worked in the financial industry underwriting agriculture loans. This experience, combined with childhood years on a farm, inspired Brett to begin beekeeping as a hobby, and eventually turn it into a fulltime profession with the launch of Humble Honey Co.

The couple were already finding success with their business when Kelsay decided she wanted to do more.

“(Hemp farmers) just embodied this real entrepreneurial spirit. They believed in hemp as a textile, as a food source, medicinal and CBD. They believed it could be the next American cash crop,” she said.

Kelsay quickly began to believe it, too, building on a preexisting passion that food is medicine. “We believe that everything we put in our bodies has an impact, so why wouldn’t we take this to market?”

She felt there was great historical timing for hemp products due to the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing the cultivation of hemp, combined with the recent hype around the legalization of recreational marijuana and CBD.

“Hemp is named the No. 1 food trend for 2020,” Kelsay said. She was also a regular consumer of food bars, something she describes as a “common, trustworthy and convenient product” embraced by American consumers.

Through the Fuse coworking space in Richland’s Parkway, Kelsay formed a local team to build the Hummingbar product while she designed the flavor profile in her own kitchen.

“We have a great ecosystem of entrepreneurs who were able to come alongside me to get started,” she said.

The effort took most of 2018 while she worked toward a goal of creating the most powerful food bar on the market, using high quality ingredients. “We don’t want to just package up any hemp and take it to market. We are an American hemp food company. We partner with small- and medium-sized American hemp farmers,” she said.

The farms are mostly found in states along the northern border of Canada, including Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota. Crop rotation allows hemp to be grown without herbicides or pesticides, yet there is still an effort to make it organic. The process takes at least three years for the soil to rest.

As the Hummingbar line grew, Kelsay’s husband bowed out of the effort since the couple are also raising three small children. “We decided to stay married and not run another business together,” said Kelsay.

Efforts to launch the brand have resulted in $1.3 million in investments, mostly from local sources and all from within Washington. The team has recently transitioned to bringing on those experienced in operating a product and a brand, now that Hummingbar has moved out of the launch stage. Fewer than 10 employees are part of that team.

Kelsay said the food bar industry is a $7 billion market and projected to climb to $9 billion. “If you do the math, and we had just 1 percent of that market share,” Kelsay suggested, seeing a future for hemp as a “pantry staple.”

Current Hummingbar flavors include honey and cinnamon; almond and chocolate; and lavender, pistachio and blueberry, among others. Five more flavors are planned. Kelsay describes the bars as “soft, chewy and delicious.” They sell for about $2.29 to $2.69 apiece, depending on location. The name for the bars comes from the idea that the nutrients inside will keep you humming throughout the day.

“It’s really what hemp can do for you, it’s that powerful nutrition,” she said. “We believe in delicious nutrition that doesn’t have to be bland.”

Extensive promotional activity is planned for the remainder of the year to make more consumers aware of the product and its health benefits. It’s a challenge Kelsay embraces.

“How do you take this American-grown super food that’s superior to all others and put it in different forms that Americans will love and want to consume on a daily basis? It’s the super food greater than all others and nobody knows about it, or if they do, it’s likely a misconception,” she said.

Hummingbars can be food in the nutrition bar aisle of grocery stores, alongside other national brands such as Larabar, Clif and Luna.

Humming Hemp: thehumminggroup.com; Facebook; Instagram.

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