In late 2016, at his wife’s behest, then-Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard met with Philip Goglia, a renowned nutritionist based in Los Angeles. For months, Leonard had been feeling lethargic, had trouble sleeping and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. It didn’t take long before Goglia changed Leonard’s diet, including having him eliminate gluten, dairy and processed sugars. Leonard, who was in his fifth NBA season, saw immediate results.
“He changed my career and my life,” said Leonard, who now plays for the Miami Heat, which trail the Los Angeles Lakers, two games to one, in the NBA Finals.
Still, although Leonard stuck with his plan and remained health-conscious, he couldn’t find enough healthy and tasty snacks that he could eat after practices or between meals. Elle Leonard, his wife, took that as a challenge. In January 2018, while hanging out in the kitchen at their Portland home, she looked at the ingredients from some popular energy and protein bars, came up with her own concoction and asked Meyers what he thought.
“I was like, ‘Wait a minute. This is actually pretty good,’” said Leonard, laughing.
And thus, unintentionally, began the impetus behind Level, a food company that the Leonards officially formed late last year. So far, Level has launched protein bars in four flavors that it distributes solely through its website, generating more than $250,000 in revenue in less than a year and seeing an average of 12% monthly sales growth. The company plans on adding three more flavors by early December, someday selling the products through Amazon.com and in retail stores and expanding its offerings during the second quarter of next year.
“It’s going to be clear extensions based off our current offering,” Elle Leonard said. “We’re not trying to play into the meal replacement space. We’re doing purely the in-between meals or snacks.”
For the Leonards, Level has become a fun family business and another way to bond over their shared love of nutrition and competition. They met in February 2011 when they were both freshmen at the University of Illinois. Meyers was serving as the host for Max Bielfeldt, Elle’s brother, who was a senior in high school and taking his official recruiting visit to Illinois. Max Bielfeldt ended up spurning Illinois and committing to play at Michigan, but that weekend did lead to his sister getting introduced to her future husband, although it took some time before they began dating.
“She wouldn’t let me take her to dinner,” Meyers Leonard said. “She said, ‘We can shoot jump shots if you’d like.’ I said, ‘Perfect. I’m poor and I can’t pay anyways and I’m good at shooting a basketball, as well.’ This was a match made in heaven for me.”
Elle Leonard, who was a talented high school player but didn’t compete at Illinois, remembers their first date consisting of five hours at the gym: two hours of shooting, followed by three hours of talking. They’ve been together ever since and remained shooting buddies.
“We’ve always bonded over going to the court and just hanging out and talking,” Elle Leonard said.
The two routinely post their shooting exploits on their social media accounts. Last week, one day after the Heat clinched their NBA Finals appearance, Meyers and Elle competed on an outdoor court at the league’s bubble in Orlando, Fla. He posted a video on Twitter of himself facing away from the basket and throwing the ball off a building and into the hoop.
“Our new secret spot in the bubble & had to remind Elle why she shouldn’t challenge me in H-O-R-S-E,” he wrote.
For all the good-natured trash talk between the two, Meyers Leonard gives the credit for Level’s success to Elle, whose business acumen and curiosity has paid dividends. After graduating from Illinois in 2014, where she studied marketing and advertising, Elle Leonard moved to Portland and served as the business manager for Meyers, who had been the Trail Blazers’ first round pick in the 2012 draft following his sophomore year in college.
Elle Leonard’s role included a variety of duties from organizing Meyers’ schedule to building a website for his basketball camp to everything in between.
“She’s always been my rock,” Meyers Leonard said. “She put everything on the back burner for me and now she’s able to show people her talents. I love that.”
Still, when Elle initially made the protein bars for Meyers nearly three years ago, she had no intention of one day starting a company. But later that year, as more friends, family members and Meyers’ teammates told her they liked the bars, she decided to book time at a food innovation center in downtown Portland. She worked with a food scientist there to perfect the recipe, and she eventually met with business people who had experience in the food industry. Some suggested Level launch right away in retail stores, but Elle has decided to take things slower on purpose.
“There is a rule of thumb,” she said. “It’s very easy to get on shelves and it’s extremely hard to maintain it. When you go to a store, you’re looking for brands that you recognize. If we haven’t built up that brand recognition, we’re setting ourselves up for not being in the best light when it comes to retail.”
These days, Level has built its brand recognition mainly through word-of-mouth and Meyers’ and Elle’s social media accounts. They both said that the Heat’s surprising run to the NBA Finals has helped raise their profiles, which in turn helps Level. Leonard only played in one of Miami’s first 16 playoff games, but he’s started the past two games, including Sunday night’s 115-104 victory over the Lakers.
Level has also kept its costs down by handling its own distribution and fulfillment until last week when it began working with a third-party company. And, besides the Leonards, the company only has two full-time and two part-time employees.
Meyers and Elle Leonard have fully self-funded Level so far, but they are considering getting outside investors as they grow and require more capital. Still, they maintain their mission will remain the same no matter how big the company someday becomes.
“We both really focus on what we’re putting in our bodies,” Meyers Leonard. “We wanted to create a product that everyone could enjoy and has an incredible ingredient profile while also tasting very good. We want people to be healthy.”