As a self-proclaimed candy addict, Tara Bosch has struggled to maintain a healthy relationship with food her entire life.
"Growing up, the woman at my neighborhood 7-11 knew me by name because I was in there buying penny candy every day," Bosch, 24, says. "It's so easy to sit down and watch TV with your girlfriends and kill an entire bag of gummy bears."
Bosch spent hours scanning grocery stores for a healthier, tasty alternative to the candies on the market that she liked, but couldn't find one. The search led to her to the idea of developing her own candy and, ultimately, to launching a business that would fill a hole in the market. Officially launched in 2016, SmartSweets sells four low-sugar products, all similar in size, shape, and texture to candy staples that have been around since the 1920s: Fruity Gummy Bears, Sour Gummy Bears, Sour Blast Buddies (a version of Sour Patch Kids), and Sweet Fish (a version of Swedish Fish).
The concept has caught on quickly with retailers and health-conscious consumers who have a sweet tooth. SmartSweets is now in more than 10,000 stores in the U.S and Canada. The Greendale, Indiana-based company, which is working on deals with Target, Kroger, and Vitamin Shoppe, expects to reach 20,000 by the end of 2019. Bosch now has 28 employees and has raised $6.1 million in funding from angel investors.
From the kitchen to retail stores everywhere
As a student at the University of British Columbia, Bosch was more passionate about the idea of starting a business than she was about her political science and German studies. "I didn't have the confidence at the time to act on my ideas, but I'd religiously watch Shark Tank," she says. Eventually she did make the leap, starting a vinyl and chalkboard wall decal company in her dorm room that flopped after eight months.
The seeds of Bosch's next, far more successful venture began to form when she worked at a supplements store in 2014, the summer before her sophomore year. The experience made her more conscious of exactly how much sugar she was consuming. She tried removing it from her diet completely, but it didn't work. "I realized that for me, it wasn't about cutting out certain foods," she says. "It was about finding smarter choices." It was at that point that she started looking for healthier candy alternatives.
Further inspiration for SmartSweets came months later during a conversation Bosch had with her 89-year-old grandmother, who told her how much she regretted all the sugar she'd eaten over the years, realizing at a late age how much it had affected her health. "It was a shocking moment for me," Bosch says. "I was like, 'Wow, you can literally be a senior, and still feel bad about yourself because of what you're putting in your body.'"
During the summer of 2015, Bosch bought a gummy bear mold off Amazon, and started sugar casting in her kitchen. She spent three months looking up recipes on Google, researching alternative sources of sugar, and testing various raw materials. "Protein bars used to be the equivalent of candy bars, so I did some research into the ingredients they were using to address sugar and came across these plant-based fibers," she says. She also contacted some raw material suppliers and met with technical experts to help refine the ingredients list.
In lieu of sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners, Bosch chose to use stevia, along with tapioca fibers, a corn syrup substitute that mimics the textures, flavors, and other properties of sugar. In total, every 1.8-ounce bag of SmartSweets candy contains just three grams of natural sugar (per 50 gram serving) compared with the 24 grams found in other brands.
When the fall semester rolled around, Bosch decided to drop out of college and focus on turning her operation into a real business. She began taking her products to trade shows and met a buyer from Bed Bath & Beyond. SmartSweets Gummy Bears debuted in the retailer's stores across Canada in August 2016, and sold so well that a year later the chain offered the company custom placement near the cash registers.
"It's got the expandability play. It's not a one-trick pony," says Joe Serventi, founder of chickpea puff company Hippeas and a natural foods veteran of more than 20 years. Serventi has served as a mentor to Bosch. "It's also got that brand that pops in stores, which is why retailers love it."
The 500 Whole Foods locations that stock SmartSweets are on track to sell a total of more than two million bags this year, estimates Jason Krolikowski, the grocery chain's senior category merchant of candy and functional snacks. (A single bag retails for $3.29, roughly a dollar more than older, more established brands like Haribo.)
"Plant-based products have been permeating our stores for the past year," Krolikowski says. "And SmartSweets is at the very top tier of their category." Lily's Sweets, Pure Love Chocolate, and other candy makers also use stevia as a sugar alternative, but SmartSweets is the first non-chocolate brand to market.
It's possible that the company may face some difficulty keeping its product fully stocked with all the growth--Krolikowski can't confirm whether the product has sold out of stores in the past but says they've "given more shelf space to the brand to accommodate the ever-increasing demand." SmartSweets also sells on Amazon and its own website, and has deals in place to stock large company headquarters including Facebook and Google. Bosch is currently working on a similar deal with WeWork for its corporate offices.
As demand grows, SmartSweets is continuing to develop new products. This year, for example, it plans to roll out a spin on classic Peach Ring candies. Bosch says she hopes the brand's growing popularity also will help spark a larger concern about sugar saturating the food industry.
"Successfully addressing the amount of sugar in the candy industry raises a much larger question as to why there's so much sugar in all our foods today," she says.