Food Entrepreneur SAN FRANCISCO — Ashley Nickelsen’s aspiration to reimagine typical vending machine snacks began with protein bars. Next up is a new spin on the classic peanut butter cup, formulated with functional ingredients and no added sugar.

“Our central thesis is we’re rethinking junk food,” said Ms. Nickelsen, founder and chief executive officer of San Francisco startup B.T.R. Nation. “Anything that would come out of a vending machine is fair game for us.”

B.T.R. Nation Superfood Truffle Cups feature cacao nibs sustainably sourced from regenerative farms in Ecuador, cocoa butter, organic dates and nuts, plant fiber, and cordyceps mushroom, reishi mushroom or tart cherry powder. A hint of monk fruit adds sweetness.

Varieties include snickerdoodle, brownie batter and cherry chocolate, inspired by the brand’s bestselling bar offerings.

The truffle cups debuted online late last year, following months of research and development, Ms. Nickelsen said, noting, “The chocolate industry is just insanely different than the bar industry.” The launch builds on the early success of the bars, which gained tens of thousands of online customers within the first two years of business, said Ms. Nickelsen. Year-over-year revenues grew 300% in 2022, she added.

“Our secret sauce is threefold: no added sugar, 100% clean label and powered by plant-based superfoods and stress-busting adaptogens,” Ms. Nickelsen said.

She created the initial recipes for the bars several years ago, driven by disappointment in the lack of nutritious, convenient snacks available as her parents battled rare forms of late-stage cancer.

“Between chemo appointments and radiation, we were eating absolute junk from hospital vending machines,” she recalled. “With my backgrounds in biochemistry and food studies, I took to the kitchen to create something better. When I brought my creations to the hospital, everyone loved them. The doctors, nurses, other caretakers and especially my parents, who were having a hard time eating anything.”

During grueling rounds of treatment, her mother consumed peanut butter cups, often “two, three, four at a time,” Ms. Nickelsen said.

“And my father loved chocolate,” she added. “It was something very personal to me and had to be the next vertical we were going to tackle.”

The company name is a nod to her parents’ personal mantra, “be bold, tenacious and resilient.” B.T.R. Nation bars, available in flavors including cinnamon cookie dough, dark chocolate brownie, peanut butter chocolate chip and cherry chocolate chip, are sold in scores of specialty retailers, including Erewhon, Foxtrot, Central Market and Bristol Farms.

The truffle cups are slated to launch on ahead of Valentine’s Day and will roll out to retail shelves this year, packaged in pouches of six individually wrapped cups and eventually in two-count packs that may be stocked near cash registers at grocery stores and, yes, in vending machines.

The startup also is preparing to open an equity crowdfunding round on the Republic investment platform to support new product development, expanded distribution and key additions to the team.

Ms. Nickelsen expects to introduce a new bar and two new chocolate items later this year, tapping into a “taster’s club” of top online customers for input.

“The cups are not where we end,” she said. “There might be something in addition to the cups. There might be some new flavors of cups.” 

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