Insights from three emerging brands

by Monica Watrous
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Hundreds of brands exhibiting at the Summer Fancy Food Show are elbowing into a crowded marketplace.

NEW YORK — Among the 2,600 companies exhibiting at the Summer Fancy Food Show, hundreds are relatively new to the scene, elbowing into a crowded marketplace with products hoped to stand out on the shelves and resonate with consumers.

Food Business News met with the founders of three emerging brands during the specialty food show, held June 28-30 in New York. Each entrepreneur shared the struggles of starting a business in a highly competitive industry and the advantages of being a nimble player amid a rapidly evolving consumer landscape.

SeaSnax was inspired by the founder's now 9-year-old daughter.

Plenty of snacks in the sea

A 9-year-old named Namu is a member of the research and development team for Los Angeles-based SeaSnax, a maker of organic roasted seaweed snacks. She’s also the daughter of founder Jin Jun and the inspiration behind the product.

“At the age of three, (Namu) started devouring seaweed, and when I took a closer look at what was out there in the conventional markets, we wanted to just create something that was made with simple and pure ingredients,” Ms. Jun said.

Made with organic extra virgin olive oil, SeaSnax are the first Non-GMO Project verified line of its kind in the marketplace. Many other brands use corn oil, Ms. Jun said.

SeaSnax Chomperz are made with glutinous rice flour and include such flavors as jalapeño, barbecue, onion and sea salt.

Varieties include original, wasabi, onion and chipotle. The company also manufactures a line of crunchy seaweed chips called Chomperz, which are made with glutinous rice flour and include such flavors as jalapeño, barbecue, onion and sea salt.

“These are things that have existed in South Korean culture, and I’m just making it more accessible to the Western palate,” Ms. Jun said.

After developing the seaweed snacks five years ago, Ms. Jun had planned to sell it in farmers markets.

“But the irony was I couldn’t get into any farmers markets in Los Angeles because there’s a really long waiting list of hundreds of people trying to get in,” she said. “They said it would take three-plus years. So, instead … I took it across the street to an independent grocery store, and they said, ‘We’ll bring it in!’ And the second store I went to was Co-Opportunity in Santa Monica, which is a huge, wonderful natural market. To this day, they still sell so much of our product. They can clear over 100 cases in two weeks.

“And the third store was Whole Foods.”

Today, the products are sold in about 5,000 stores. Ms. Jun said she has done hundreds of in-store demos to educate American consumers, including several notable celebrities, about the virtues of roasted seaweed.

“For people who have never tried seaweed or are wary of it … what I tell people is if you want to satisfy that salty craving without all the calories and junk, it’s a nice alternative,” Ms. Jun said.

The products have caught the eye of television’s Dr. Oz, who featured the wasabi variety as a favorite healthy snack on his show in SeaSnax’s second year of business. After that appearance, Ms. Jun said the flavor was sold out for months.

“There was another time after our very first year of business, we suddenly were getting all of these web orders, and we thought something had malfunctioned on our computer because normally we get a couple a day, but … by the end of the day it capped off somewhere close to 700,” Ms. Jun said. “We were like, ‘What’s going on?’ And then our friends tell us, ‘Did you know that SeaSnax is on the front page of Yahoo! today?’ It was listed as one of the healthiest snacks.

“Back then, it was literally just me and my husband, and we were up all night in the warehouse shipping those orders.”

SeaSnax also has been featured on The Today Show and in Inc. magazine as one of the fastest-growing private companies in 2014. That particular mention attracted interest from potential investors. But would Ms. Jun sell the company?

“Our daughter says no,” said Ben Kim, Ms. Jun’s husband. “We’ll have to see if she wants to run it. She still has a ways to go.”

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