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.
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.
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.”
|||READ MORE: Lovely Candy Co.|||
Lovely Candy a labor of love
The origins of Lovely Candy Co. make for a lovely story. Founder and chief executive officer Mike Nakamura developed the range of gluten-free confections for his wife, Jackie, who loves licorice but discovered traditional brands didn’t meet her dietary needs.
Creating a gluten-free licorice with an acceptable texture, however, proved more challenging than expected. After two years of development, the Lovely Candy Co. launched bite-size licorice last year in original, cherry and strawberry varieties. Before that, the company introduced other gluten-free candies, including fruit chews, fudge rolls and caramels. Mr. Nakamura said he’s open to expanding the brand into other categories through innovation or licensing.
With no artificial or bioengineered ingredients, Lovely Candy is what Mr. Nakamura calls a “smart indulgence.” But he doesn’t want to limit his distribution to the natural channel. The company landed shelf space in Target early last year, and with the recent additions of CVS and Costco, Lovely Candy is now sold in 25,000 stores.
“I’m an all-channel strategist,” Mr. Nakamura told Food Business News. “I’m not trying to bill the company as a natural candy company. We have all of these wonderful natural claims, but at the end of the day, it’s a premium, better-ingredient candy.”
|||READ MORE: SuperSeedz|||
Planting the seeds of success
More than 10 years ago, Kathie Pelliccio made her first batch of seasoned, dry-roasted pumpkin seeds in a cast iron pan on her kitchen stove to spruce up her salads. She began peddling the shelled pumpkin seeds at craft fairs and farmers markets and founded her business, Kathie’s Kitchen, L.L.C., and the SuperSeedz brand in 2004. Her husband, Joe, is president of the North Haven, Conn.-based company.
SuperSeedz are allergen-friendly and cholesterol-free, providing a good source of iron and zinc and up to 9 grams of protein per oz. Varieties include somewhat spicy, super spicy, curry, tomato with basil and garlic, cinnamon sugar, cocoa, sea salt, original, and the latest flavor, maple sugar and sea salt, which won a Most Innovative New Product award at the Sweets & Snacks Expo in May. SuperSeedz are sold in about 15,000 retailers, including conventional grocers and natural food stores.
The products are made in small batches with simple ingredients. The maple sugar and sea salt variety, for example, contains only shelled pumpkin seeds, organic sugar, maple sugar, unrefined sea salt and real vanilla extract.
“I actually test in my kitchen still, so I was testing with the maple sugar, and the house smelled like I was baking a cake,” Ms. Pelliccio told Food Business News. “But maple sugar is really expensive, so I did source out some natural maple flavors, but when I baked with that, the house did not smell (the same way).
“So I had to go back to the real Vermont maple sugar. That’s what we’re about. Real ingredients.”
Despite increased consumer interest in plant-based protein, the pumpkin seed category remains but a seedling itself, and Ms. Pelliccio said she continues to educate consumers about her product.
“Some people think pumpkin seeds will taste like pumpkin, or people roast them out of the pumpkin and a lot of times they don’t (turn out well),” she said. “So when I finally make them try one, they say, ‘Oh, my gosh; these are great!’“And my response is, ‘You just thought you didn’t like pumpkin seeds.’”