Q&A: Way Better Snacks sprouting into success

by Monica Watrous
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Jim Breen, founder and c.e.o. of Live Better Brands, shares insights on the snack category and Way Better Snacks product innovation.

MINNEAPOLIS — Jim Breen, founder of Live Better Brands, L.L.C., said he stumbled into sprouting while researching how to formulate healthier snacks.

“I started learning about sprouting and how it increases the nutrient value of grains, seeds and beans,” said Mr. Breen, a seasoned veteran in the natural foods category. He launched his brand Way Better Snacks four years ago with a line of corn tortilla chips featuring such ingredients as sprouted black beans, sprouted quinoa and sprouted broccoli seed.

“The idea behind the brand was to build on consumer-loved and appreciated products; we decided on snacks and specifically tortilla chips, and we feel like we’ve made a better version of items that people are familiar with by putting nutrient-dense grains, seeds and beans in our product, germinating as many of the grains and seeds as possible so we can better absorb the nutrients and benefits from them, and simple ingredients and premium ingredients and all of the things that are on-trend with more consumers every day,” Mr. Breen told Food Business News.

Sprouting removes the protective layer from seeds, grains and beans to improve the bioavailability and absorption of nutrients. Sprouted ingredients may be milled into flours, baked into bread, added to beverages or used whole in formulations.

Last May, the company acquired BioEssential Botanicals, a sprouting business in Stirling, Ont., and renamed it Live Better Sprouting Innovation. In addition to supplying sprouted ingredients for Way Better Snacks’ product lines, the division sells germinated ingredients commercially.

“We’re getting close to bringing to market next-generation sprouted stuff that we would not have been able to constantly work on unless our companies had come together,” Mr. Breen said. “Owning the manufacturing on the sprouting side has been really key for us to be able to bring fun things to market like sprouted kale seeds and mustard seeds and also work on some advancements in innovation.”

Way Better Snacks offers a range of pita chips made with sprouted ingredients and a line of sprouted barley crackers.

In addition to tortilla chips, Way Better Snacks offers a range of pita chips made with sprouted ingredients and a line of sprouted barley crackers in four flavor varieties.

“Barley, spelt, and amaranth are the core flours that make up crackers,” Mr. Breen said. “We sprout the barley and supplement that with sprouted chia seeds, sprouted mustard seeds and some nice natural flavorings.”

For the upcoming holiday season, Way Better Snacks plans to launch a limited-edition gingerbread spice tortilla chip in addition to a returning limited-edition pumpkin cranberry chip, which first debuted two years ago.

“As far as our pumpkin cranberry chip, that really came around as we played around with butternut squash as an everyday item,” Mr. Breen said. “We decided to turn it into pumpkin instead and have it be a holiday item.”

Live Better Brands recently secured an investment from private equity firm Alliance Consumer Growth that enables the company to expand product distribution nationwide, accelerate new product development and increase marketing spend. Way Better Snacks currently has distribution in more than 20,000 stores across the United States and Canada.

For the upcoming holiday season, Way Better Snacks plans to launch a returning limited-edition pumpkin cranberry chip, which first debuted two years ago.

“We’ve done a lot of product formulating this year, and we have enough options that if we have an opportunity with key retailers and the timing is right, we could bring a number of things to market that I think would be nice extensions for us very quickly,” Mr. Breen said. “We’ve been working behind the customer scenes, if you will, of getting ready to have new stuff be available all the time.”

In an exclusive interview, Mr. Breen, who is also the chief executive officer of Way Better Snacks, shared insights on the snack category and product innovation.

Food Business News: How are new flavors and varieties developed at Way Better Snacks?

Jim Breen: It’s a combination of in-house and third party. We work with a small group of product formulators, mostly flavor formulators. We brainstorm about what it is we want to consider bringing to market, just in general flavor profiles.

We try to work them on a benchtop first, and once we get something that we feel is close to what we need, we bring it to our flavor house to see if they can replicate that so that we can commercially produce it.

The tricky thing about flavoring is, in the natural food world, we have a commitment to really minimize the number of ingredients in our products. We say right on our label that we’re proud of our simple ingredients, and because we say that, we like to use the least amount of ingredients possible. One of the things that really drives an ingredient label up is flavoring.

The hardest thing for us is, once we come up with something on our own, is getting the flavor house to be able to minimize the number of ingredients to replicate our flavors and to make sure our ingredients are as simple as possible and non-G.M.O. compliant. It’s more difficult than you’d think it should be to get a non-G.M.O.-compliant seasoning. It’s all done custom. We don’t buy any seasoning off shelf, and we’re proud of the outcome.

How do your limited-edition flavors figure into your innovation?

Mr. Breen: Retailers are always looking for something unique and different around holiday periods. Quite often retailers are resistant to in-and-outs, but at holiday times, consumers demand them, and retailers respond. It’s a way to drive incremental volume and create some excitement for consumers and some variety they might not normally see.

What are your most popular selling products?

Mr. Breen: Our top item is our sweet potato flavor (tortilla chip). We’ve got a number of items that sell at about the same rate, which would be our number two.

Way Better Snacks' best-selling product is its Sweet Potato Tortilla Chips.

One we really want to rally around is our sweet chili (tortilla chip). It’s the most differentiated of all our chips in the category, and it has a nice bite to it but not terribly overpowering. It has all of our best stuff in it: broccoli seeds and radish seeds and chia and flax and quinoa. It’s really loaded with a lot of great stuff.

What’s your personal favorite?

Mr. Breen: I eat probably more blue chips than anything, and it’s not one of our best movers. But it’s a fabulous item, I think. I eat it because I like dipping it in hummus and salsas and guacamole. It’s got a nutty flavor to it.

What other categories do you see Way Better Snacks entering?

Mr. Breen: We’ll see. We’re going to stick closely into snacks. There are some other snack segments that we have some interest in that we’re playing around with and formulating, but there’s a lot of opportunities to continue to grow our brand with the segments that we’re in. So, we’re not rushing into anything else.

When the time is right and we feel like from an organizational standpoint we have the ability to execute successfully on new things, there are a lot of places we can go. That’s one of the great things about Way Better Snacks as a brand. It’s very extendable. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that brand could be over if we choose to. Also the sprouting is an important differentiator for us that is extendable. You can put sprouted grains, seeds or beans, whole or milled, in just about any product that has non-sprouted grains, seeds or beans, which is everything we eat, essentially.

We’re excited about the extendibility about sprouting and Way Better, but we’re trying to be measured. It all comes down to how many things can a company do well at the same time. We will continue to focus on what we know is working and growing, and we’ll bring other things to market when we feel the time is right.
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