As simplyFUEL launches on the shelves of local Costco stores this week, the Kansas City-rolled brand of energy balls is offering customers more than a healthy option for snacking.
The woman-led company instead symbolizes a commitment to nutrition that helped fuel the Kansas City Royals through a historic World Series run and scored a health win for a beloved local TV icon.
“When people think of eating healthier, they often think it won’t taste good or they have to give up the foods they love,” said Mitzi Dulan, founder and CEO of simplyFUEL. “As a foodie and dietitian, I’m all about combining amazing taste and nutrition — and I believe eating should be fun.”
Those flavorful experiences now include chickpea protein and do-it-yourself protein ball mixes, in addition to a variety of Dulan’s starting lineup of protein balls that range from brownie batter to peanut butter honey almond.
Her keto granola mix made its way to Costco store shelves Friday in Independence, Midtown Kansas City, Overland Park, and Lenexa — as well as select stores in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota.
With a healthy pinch of inspiration from her time as the team nutritionist for both the Kansas City Royals and Kansas City Chiefs, Dulan’s journey comes with a world championship assist.
“It was my 10th season with the Royals and I had never made them anything in my kitchen before,” Dulan said, recalling a casual commitment she made to bring some of the snacks to the team as they made their way through the highs of the 2015 post-season.
“I kept my word and brought my protein balls out the next week — and the guys loved them,” she said. “The next day we clinched [the American League Central.]”
Dulan quadrupled her recipe the next week — a safe play, in case they fielded any superstitious power beyond their roster of natural ingredients and superfoods.
“The guys would gobble them all up,” she said, recalling wins that kept on coming and exciting moments in her career that would soon call up entrepreneurial opportunity.
“After the ALDS celebration, one of the local sports reporters asked me if I had been in the clubhouse,” she said, noting her hair was drenched in champagne as she exited the post-game festivities, carrying empty plastic containers that once held protein balls.
“I told him, ‘I’m the team nutritionist. I’ve been making my protein balls for the players,’ He asked for my business card but my hands were full and I just told him to have his producer call me. … A week later I had done interviews with [local affiliates for] CBS, NBC, FOX, ABC, and the [Kansas City Star.]”
Success didn’t stop with slots on local morning shows, national healthy cooking spots with syndicated talkers like “Live with Kelly and Michael,” or quotes in print — quickly presenting Dulan with the opportunity to pitch a retail business when the team finally earned its World Series crown in 2015.
“I had lots of people asking, ‘How can I buy your balls?’ simplyFUEL was born,” she said.
Getting results — whether an expression of immediate satisfaction from a delicious flavor or the longer-term payoff of weight loss — brings Dulan joy, she said.
“When they tell me how they love one of my products, it is similar to the feeling that I get when I help change someone’s diet and it improves their life,” she explained. “There is really no better feeling!”
Among clients who’ve helped Dulan experience such a reaction: Bryan Busby, chief meteorologist at KMBC-TV in Kansas City.
“I have taken several Chiefs and Royals players grocery shopping in Kansas City — including Priest Holmes. Not one of them got stopped as many times as when I took Bryan Busby grocery shopping,” she said of Busby’s status, which served as a reminder of how important he (and his health) is to Kansas Citians.
“He was able to significantly reduce his diabetes medications. When I watch him on the news at night, doing the weather, it makes me so happy to see how he’s maintained his weight loss for so many years. I’m so proud of him.”
Busby dropped 58 pounds while working with Dulan.
Worth a look back
Helping people fuel their bodies — fame not required — continues to power Dulan 25 years into her career as a health and wellness entrepreneur, itself a journey of perseverance and the byproduct of a healthy can-do attitude.
Elevator pitch: Making yummy and nutritious, on-the-go foods with whole food ingredients is what we do. We started with protein balls with probiotics and now offer a keto nut granola and a 1-ingredient chickpea protein powder. We want to help you fuel your fun!
Founding year: 2015
Founding team: Mitzi Dulan
Current team size: 2
Funding raised to date: $350,000
Noteworthy investors: Ken Harris, managing partner at Cadent Consulting; Randy Sims, chief legal counsel, Cerner; Kristy DeHoog, former project development manager, Pressed Juicery.
“I was lucky to start my career in San Francisco during the Dot-com Boom. I had nutrition clients who were [venture capitalists] and some of the earliest employees at some major tech companies,” she said, tracing her roots, which include completing an internship at the University of California San Francisco after graduating from Kansas State University.
The innovation climate of the era was critical in shaping Dulan’s path to the present, she added.
“The whole entrepreneurial vibe of San Francisco from 1995 to 2001 was quite remarkable. … I even bought Amazon stock at $21, but sold it a few years later, after I moved back to Kansas — ouch,” she joked.
Beyond new experiences, a stint in San Francisco during the 1990s meant brushes with some of the brightest minds of the 2020s — including a meal shared with Elon Musk in the early days of X.com, which later became PayPal.
While lunch with the Tesla founder stands out as a high point from her time on the West Coast, it’s Dulan’s relationship with Musk’s mother, Maye Musk, fellow dietitian, that proved to be a career game changer.
“You could say she knows how to raise entrepreneurs,” Dulan said of the Musk matriarch, who she became good friends with when they sat together on local and national boards.
“Maye gave me two big pieces of advice that I remember to this day: First, we get asked a lot to speak for free as dietitians. She taught me to respond to speaking requests that had no budget [with,] ‘I’m a professional speaker and get paid to speak — but if you would like a less educated and experienced speaker, I’m happy to refer you to a student or intern,’” she recalled, noting such advice has proven critical in building her reputation as an industry expert.
A Musk-molded lesson in supply and demand also aided in rounding out Dulan’s entrepreneurial playbook.
“Her advice helped me start my career by negotiating for my worth and I was able to become a top nutrition spokesperson in the country [because of it.]”
Persistence rings through
With her value well known, Dulan’s success story serves as an example of collaboration, ambition, and seizing opportunities — all things she hopes her fellow entrepreneurs embrace.
“I never had any thoughts of selling protein balls when I first made them for the Royals. It happened very organically and I got pretty lucky,” she said, tying the sentiment to another San Francisco experience that found her at a 2014 retreat with Jack Canfield, author of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” book series.
“One exercise that we did was to walk up to 10 other people and ask for what we wanted. … My ask was, ‘I want a World Series ring,’ I asked 9 times, got no’s. The 10th, I got a yes,” she said, noting the experience was designed around Canfield’s own experience with being shot down by publishers and investors.
As Kansas Citians well know, the Royals’ pursuit of the ring paid off a year later.
“I was out at the ballpark the next season and our head strength coach, Ryan Stoneberg, handed Alex Gordon a box and said, ‘Give this to Mitzi,” Gordo knew what to do and knew what Stoney was giving to him. Gordo got down on one knee and gave me my World Series ring,” she said of the moment the fan in her had long dreamed of — the result of the team’s persistence.
“Persistence is the key as an entrepreneur — but it also applies to other things in life. As a mom of two teenage daughters, I’m hopeful that they have learned from watching me how important it is to be persistent,” Dulan said, noting the same attitude has helped her weather the COVID-19 pandemic. “I am a believer that adversity is a gift. You have to keep pushing and usually something good will come.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.