BOSTON — A disastrous dinner date led to the founding of 88 Acres Foods, Inc., a maker of snacks, spreads and salad dressings formulated with seeds.
Co-founders Nicole Ledoux and Rob Dalton, who met on Match.com and married seven years ago, share a passion for food. But Mr. Dalton, who is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, “has always had to treat it like a potential minefield,” his wife said. She discovered this during the couple’s fourth date when a cross-contaminated dish at a restaurant resulted in a hasty dash to the emergency room.
“We had to spend the night in the hospital,” Ms. Ledoux recalled. “We joke that Rob got the fifth pity date.”
Ms. Ledoux was raised on an 88-acre farm in central Massachusetts, where her deep connection to food is rooted. When the couple later began training for a triathlon, she crafted batches of seed-based nutrition bars to provide safe and sustained energy during long bike rides and runs.
“The seeds, because they have this incredible nutrition profile, they are loaded with protein and vitamins and minerals, and most importantly they are not a major food allergen and Rob can safely eat them,” she said. “We worked out with a huge community in Boston, and it started out with people stealing bites of Rob’s bars and then people trying to place orders before our morning workouts, and then we were passing out 500 or 600 bars before our morning runs.
“Then we got in front of Whole Foods, and the rest is kind of history. The bar category is incredibly crowded, but Whole Foods found that we were filling a really big whitespace for them.”
88 Acres snack bars appeared on Whole Foods Market shelves six years ago. The products are based on a blend of organic pumpkin seeds, organic sunflower seeds and ground flax seeds, plus gluten-free oats, brown rice syrup and maple syrup. Flavors include dark chocolate sea salt, blueberry lemon, cinnamon and oats, ginger apple, triple berry and chocolate mocha.
“Everything that’s in our foods, every ingredient we use, you can buy on a grocery store shelf,” Ms. Ledoux said. “It’s a very uncomplicated, clean ingredient deck. And we don’t do anything unless it tastes amazing.”
Less than two years later, the brand launched a collection of seed butters, ranging from roasted pumpkin seed butter to dark chocolate sunflower seed butter, available in jars and single-serve pouches. An unsweetened watermelon seed butter, which is similar to tahini, or sesame seed butter, later joined the lineup when the founders learned their five-year-old son, Emmett, has a sesame allergy.
“Interestingly, watermelon seeds when ground are light and creamy and can go either sweet or savory,” Ms. Ledoux said. “They are loaded with protein, some of the highest amount of protein in the butter space. It’s like 9 grams per two tablespoons. It has this really nice, almost like a green bell pepper aftertaste. They had been on my radar for a while because I had seen people snacking on them when I was traveling through the Middle East and Asia.”
A line of salad dressings introduced last year in flavors such as lemon poppy seed and garden ranch incorporates organic watermelon seeds or pumpkin seeds and sunflower oil. Ms. Ledoux created the recipes to demonstrate uses for the brand’s seed butters. A Whole Foods Market buyer tasted the dressing at a trade show and coaxed the founders to commercialize it.
“It really came out of a need for our family in particular,” Ms. Ledoux said of the dressings. “The shelf-stable salad dressing aisle has some really terrible ingredients. It’s also products where we feel there are lots of brands that like to use that catchall ‘spices,’ and that just doesn’t work for our family. I don’t know if someone considers a sesame seed a spice and it’s going to kill my kid.”
88 Acres also offers pouches of “seednola,” which are the leftover clusters from bar production. Recently, the company forged a partnership with online grocer Misfits Market to distribute the snack, saving thousands of pounds of potential food waste.
Also newly launched is a pair of protein bars featuring pumpkin seeds as the primary ingredient. Ms. Ledoux said the protein bars were under development for two years.
“We wanted to see if we could get more than 10 grams of protein using real food as our protein source instead of a powder or an isolate,” she said. “We get 12 grams of protein in each bar, and it comes just from pumpkin seeds.”
The company operates a dedicated allergen-free bakery in inner-city Boston, just a short walk for most of its employees, Ms. Ledoux said. Its approach to new product development centers on three objectives.
“We’re thinking about how to bring new seeds into people’s diets,” Ms. Ledoux said. “We’re thinking about how to use seeds in ways they’ve never been used before. And then we’re also thinking about how to solve a manufacturing problem through seeds.
“Last year I think we played with 30 to 40 different types of seeds ranging from hemp and chia, which people are very familiar with, to crazy stuff like nasturtium and basil seeds and things that are just not part of people’s diets, and really exploring every possible way we can use them.”
Possibilities include the leftover seeds in fruit and vegetable processing. Ms. Ledoux said 88 Acres seeks to partner with manufacturers to reduce waste while repurposing, say, cranberry seeds in product innovation.
The “vast majority” of 88 Acres consumers do not have food allergies, she noted, but rather desire convenient plant-based nutrition and whole food ingredients.
“So, we’re looking at where we can really do something interesting and innovative in other categories,” she said.