LOS ANGELES — The past year has been one of major transformation for Ips Snacks, a Los Angeles-based maker of snack chips with added protein. In addition to reformulating its products, the brand overhauled its packaging, developed a line of popcorn with protein, and expanded its leadership team with the hiring of two industry veterans.
The company’s flagship product line, Ips Chips, debuted in 2014 with barbecue, cinnamon, white cheddar, and sea salt and black pepper varieties and 6 grams of protein per serving. Adam Kamenstein joined the company as chief executive officer the following year and set forth a series of transformative changes, beginning with the chip’s recipe, which previously included egg whites.
|Adam Kamenstein, c.e.o. of Ips Snacks|
“We eliminated egg whites as a source of protein,” Mr. Kamenstein told Food Business News. “Now, our protein source is 100% whey. Whey was always a source of protein in the chips, but it was complemented with egg white.”
Why the switch? Whey protein is more easily digested and absorbed in the body and contributes to a better taste and texture than egg white protein, he said.
“Also, what we found was, while the egg white was an interesting novelty ingredient that garnered attention when the product was launched, what the consumer really wanted was protein,” Mr. Kamenstein said. “They weren’t buying it because it had egg whites; they were buying it because it had protein.”
Next, the company initiated an overhaul of its packaging and branding, which previously was “a bit garbled,” Mr. Kamenstein said.
“What I wanted to do was put our product in a package that spoke to the consumer that we’re targeting in a more direct and coherent way with a more succinct line of messaging,” he said. “Basically that messaging boils down to, ‘We’re a great tasting product that is better for you and provides protein.’”
Amidst these changes, the company developed Ips Pop popcorn in white cheddar and sea salt varieties with 5 grams of whey protein per serving. The products are slated to hit the market in September.
The company also recently hired Dan McElwee as vice-president of sales and Christyne Baxter as director of sales, who collectively bring more than 50 years of industry experience to Ips Snacks.
“This is the first time this company has had a professional sales force, and we also brought in a director of operations, and as our revenue increases over time, we will be adding new people,” Mr. Kamenstein said. “That’s a big difference from the way we operated in the past, and it’s already brought benefits in just a few weeks that they’ve been with company.”
In an interview with Food Business News, Mr. Kamenstein discussed his vision for the company, his perception of the competitive landscape and the challenges of developing products with whey protein.
Food Business News: How do you add protein to popcorn?
Adam Kamenstein: We use a proprietary process where the protein is applied topically (after the kernel is popped). The trick to it and the complexity is if you just coat something in protein, whether it’s popcorn or anything else, what you’ll get is the taste of protein, and you don’t want that. What you want is to experience the snack as you expect the snack to taste. You want it to taste like good popcorn, and the protein should just happen. And the proprietary aspect of what we do is creating that experience.
Who are your competitors?
Mr. Kamenstein: There are other chips out there where their focus is protein. Our focus is … snackers first and foremost want a great tasting snack. If you want a great, healthy snack, you’ll eat Ips because it’s delicious, and you’re getting an egg’s worth of protein in one little bag, and it’s low fat, low carbs.
We’re going to be merchandised with other chips. Our popcorn is going to be merchandised next to SkinnyPop, not next to whey powder. If you look at the competitive universe in that light … we don’t have a competitor.
What other formats or product categories might we see from Ips Snacks in the future?
Mr. Kamenstein: We are going to have additional flavors on the chips and popcorn that we’ll introduce probably third quarter next year. We do have right now two other formats that are also within salty snacks, two other lines that we’ll be introducing next year and in 2018. I can’t say what they are, but we do have two, one of which is a close cousin of our chip, but different in specifically targeting protein for kids.
Right now, if you want a snack with protein, you think jerky. You can only have so much jerky. At the end of the day, people love chips and popcorn. These are eaten in abundance. So if we can provide protein through those snacking opportunities, I think that opens up a huge world of opportunity for us. That’s where our focus is.
Protein through salty snacking is our near-term focus. We have in mind other protein snacking concepts that aren’t necessarily in salty snacks, but I’d say over the next two years, that’s what our focus is.
What are the biggest challenges in product development for Ips Snacks?
Mr. Kamenstein: The process of making our protein chips is extremely complex. The problem is our products are extruded, and the issue with extrusion and protein is that protein is very sensitive to heat, and extrusion creates heat through pressure.
There’s a lot of variables in terms of making the chip. Getting something to come out in the shape of a chip without burning the protein is in and of itself a technological complexity. And then to get that chip to come out in such a way as to create enough heat to get the texture and crispiness that you want without damaging the nutritional content of the ingredients, those all have to come together in a bit of a manufacturing symphony.
Then, with the popcorn, having that come out with the protein content — and 5 grams is quite a bit for popcorn — and still taste like great popcorn, that’s a lot of trial and error and adjustment. It’s indeed complex.
Have your consumers given any feedback on the reformulated product?
Mr. Kamenstein: Everyone loves it. It’s not a drastic change; it’s just an improvement in terms of the formulation. It’s a little crispier. The taste is more vibrant.
When the company first introduced this chip two years ago and it was heavily egg white, it left a lot to be desired. But over the last two years, the formula and manufacturing have improved. By the time I joined this company last year, it was a great chip. It’s not like it needed an overhaul, and that’s not what we gave it. We just gave it an improvement.
The real vocal response has been with respect to our new packaging and branding, and that has been phenomenal. It’s opened doors for us. We’ve had buyers contact us to say, “Look, we always thought you had an interesting product, but the packaging never made sense for us. Now it speaks to our consumers.”
You know when you taste something whether it tastes good or not, and you know chips should be crispy. It’s not brain surgery. But packaging, branding … the outcome of what you’re doing is so enigmatic, so when you get that validation from the market as overwhelmingly as we’ve gotten it, is extremely satisfying.
What is your vision for the company going forward?
Mr. Kamenstein: My vision is pretty simple and basic. The reality is this product has done phenomenally well in the limited world in which it’s lived over the past two years. We have terrific sell-through among most of our customers. People who have been introduced to the product become loyal customers, which is great. The problem is the brand has been introduced to so few people.My objective is bringing in more people, increasing distribution. That’s our focus over the next year — taking what we now have, which is a terrific product in a terrific package, and increasing our points of distribution across conventional grocery and natural and into mass and club. We know people love our product. We know buyers are excited about it when they try it and hear about our plans. It’s just blocking and tackling going forward.