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Granola-Making Ex-Con Seeks Salvation by Snack Bar

A pro baller turned mortgage broker turned convicted felon, Seth Sundberg now hopes to add granola-bar baron to his résumé.

 

Seth Sundberg remembers the moment he read “Not for Human Consumption” printed on the side of a cardboard box filled with chicken. At the time, he was three years into his five-year prison sentence; his kitchen job included taking chicken out of the freezer and handing it to chefs for cooking. Reading the label made him sick to his stomach: He promised himself that he’d never eat chicken from the cafeteria again. 

On September 9, 2009, Sundberg had been arrested in the San Mateo home he shared with his then fiancée and their two-year-old daughter after filing—and cashing—a fraudulent tax refund of $5 million. He was convicted of tax fraud, mail fraud, and false claims against the United States, and wasn’t released from custody until November 28, 2014. 

Prior to his arrest, Sundberg had had an impressive résumé: He spent seven years as a professional basketball player for various European teams and the Los Angeles Lakers, worked as a branch manager at a mortgage company, and became the president of his own investment firm. At which point, he says, “I got greedy and made terrible decisions.” After his encounter with the prison chicken, Sundberg was so disgusted that he spent what little money he had to buy fresh food from the prison commissary and make granola bars, selling them for the prison equivalent of about $1. Though hustling granola bars wasn’t exactly legal in the eyes of the prison system, it was innocuous compared with the phone- and drug-smuggling schemes hatched by other inmates and went largely unnoticed. The bars were a hit, and Sundberg began to wonder if they could sell on the outside. After he got out of prison and found himself in need of a new direction—and an income—he returned to the idea.

Sundberg’s story is a far cry from today’s typical food-startup narrative, which generally involves either a former corporate wage slave who broke free to craft twee seasonal jams or some breed of Silicon Valley–backed, algorithm-driven food service. Instead, it’s about a guy who emerged from prison without, as he says, “two nickels to rub together” and is determined to get his life back on track by making granola bars. Right now, Sundberg has two hopes: to build a viable business and to use that business to further the still-radical idea that ex-convicts have a place in society. His company’s name—Prison Bars (tagline: Criminally Delicious)—reflects both his struggles and his hopes.

The name also points to a challenge that the typical food entrepreneur doesn’t face: To what extent should Sundberg make his criminal past part of his brand? Should he follow the example of Dave’s Killer Bread, the Oregon-based bakery that has woven its cofounder and namesake’s jail time into its mythology? Or should he take a more subtle approach? After coining the name Prison Bars while still in jail, Sundberg changed it to Inside Out Bars to avoid talking about his past. He changed it back at the urging of one of his post-prison mentors. “‘Prison Bars’ forces me to tell the story,” he notes.

Sundberg, who is 40, grew up in the Bay Area: Following his parents’ divorce when he was two, he lived in Sonora with his mother, a manager at a Jack in the Box. When he was eight, he decided to cure his boredom by lighting his mom’s car on fire. That stunt landed him in South San Francisco, where he lived with his father, an anatomy professor at Skyline College. A few years later he became interested in basketball, and he eventually landed a scholarship at the University of Hawaii. He never graduated, opting to play professional ball instead. A little more than a decade later, he filed his falsified tax return.

While in prison, Sundberg read an article about Defy Ventures, a New York City–based nonprofit that teaches ex-cons how to be entrepreneurs. As luck would have it, the organization launched a San Francisco satellite branch right around the time that Sundberg was released, and in October 2014, while living in a Tenderloin halfway house, he signed up for a Defy program. The granola bar concept was one of many ideas that Sundberg bounced off Defy’s mentors, who include venture capitalists and other business leaders: He proposed making a product similar to what he’d made in prison and hiring ex-felons as employees. “Before prison, I didn’t have a particular interest in food,” he admits. “It was just the least risk for the most potential reward on the inside.”

The challenges of launching a food business are huge even for those without a criminal record, says Catherine Hoke, Defy’s founder and chief executive officer, but former convicts “face even more obstacles—lack of education, lack of connections and mentors, and lack of access to capital.” Part of Defy’s mission is to lower those barriers, and Sundberg says that the $22,800 in grant money that he’s received from the organization has certainly helped his cause. 

One of the biggest hurdles that Sundberg faces is getting his granola bars in front of customers: Though the food bar market is lucrative—it’s forecast to hit $8.2 billion in sales this year—it’s also crowded. “I didn’t know how difficult it would be to get the attention of potential consumers,” Sundberg says. Consequently, the bulk of his efforts are currently focused on distribution.

Sundberg’s chances, says Caleb Zigas, executive director of the La Cocina kitchen incubator, “all come down to the strength of his business plan, the quality and viability of his product, and his entrepreneurial spirit.” Though Zigas hasn’t tried Prison Bars, he notes that Sundberg “does have a very good story, and there is demand.”

So far, Sundberg’s distribution network encompasses Prison-Bars.com and a handful of convenience stores, online food marketplaces, and restaurants, including the Bayview’s Huli Huli Hawaiian Grill. The latter is run by Shawn Gordon, himself an ex-convict, as a revenue center for Project Bayview, his two-year transitional-housing program that helps formerly incarcerated people acclimate to the civilian world. Taking on Sundberg’s Prison Bars, Gordon says, was a no-brainer. “For 99.9 percent of men coming out of prison, they just want to get a job,” he says. “When I met Seth, it felt like I was having a reunion with a guy I’d never met. Here’s a guy who is walking with incredible integrity. Someone gave me a chance. If I didn’t give that opportunity to the next guy, I would be a failure.”

Today Sundberg lives in a single-room-occupancy building in North Beach and occasionally sees his daughter, now eight years old. He is a full-time student at San Francisco State, on track to graduate this summer with a bachelor’s degree in economics. When he isn’t in school, he works on Prison Bars, typically for 40-plus hours a week. He doesn’t sleep much. 

Sundberg still grapples with the notion that marketing his company means exposing his past. Earlier this year he attended the San Francisco Adult Probation Department’s screening of the prison-focused film series Visions of Justice. A department worker who knew Sundberg’s probation officer was checking people at the door. When Sundberg signed the registration list with his Prison Bars email address, the woman grabbed the paper away from him.

“It is you!” she exclaimed. “You’re the Prison Bars guy!” The recognition so unnerved Sundberg that he couldn’t sleep that night. “Am I OK with being the Prison Bars guy?” he remembers asking himself. “Is my daughter OK with it?” But ultimately, he says, “I came to the realization that this is more than just me. This is what I should be doing right now. So this is what I’ll be.”

Telling his story has also helped him achieve a larger goal, Sundberg adds. “People think, ‘If I can’t volunteer in the prison system or give money to its cause, I can’t do anything.’ With Prison Bars, I’m giving people a way to support second chances.”

 

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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