Editor's note: This article is part of Inc.'s 2020 Best Industries report.
The son of Tunisian immigrants, Samy Kobrosly immersed himself in Midwestern American culture while growing up in Iowa. There was a necessary blind spot, though, in part due to his Muslim faith.
"I spent those 20 years never eating pork," he says. His friends joked he was missing out on bacon, biscuits and gravy, and fried pork rinds, which are known in some regions of the U.S. as cracklins. He didn't think about it all much at the time. But it came back to him years later when left his job in radio, and needed to channel his energy--at all hours. He started spending late nights experimenting with bread recipes in the basement kitchen of a restaurant a friend owned. Other buddies would join, and pretty soon the pork jokes started again.
Kobrosly fired back that he could probably make vegan cracklins that would be just as tasty and far healthier than the deep-fried pork fat ones. After a few weeks of tinkering, he created a version made from umami-flavor-inducing mushrooms, onions, and yuca that had just over half the calories, and less than half the sodium and total fat of Doritos, Sun Chips, or even Veggie Straws. Kobrosly's creation, which he called Snacklins, was convincing enough that he eventually set about trying to sell them. Now, four years later, they're available in 1,300 stores, including Whole Foods, 7-11, and Stop and Shop. The 20-employee Rockville, Maryland-based company is part of a wave of food businesses trying to satisfy consumers' never-ending craving for junk food with healthier versions of chips and other snacks.
The product's (and the company's) name, a play on cracklins, came to Kobrosly almost immediately. The other elements of the company required a lot more effort--especially since he'd never even considered how to get a product onto store shelves. There were the matters of packaging, nutritional labeling, marketing. But he moved fast, renting a juice bar after hours to ramp up production, printing his own labels at a FedEx store, and getting UPC barcodes. He ordered seal-top bags for the product, and put photos on Instagram. Within weeks, he'd gotten Snacklins a bit of shelf space in local D.C. gourmet grocery Glen's Garden Market.
After joining a food-business incubator he made his first hire, Sylvia Escoto, right away, figuring he could wait tables to pay her salary. Escoto and Logan McGear, Kobrosly's friend, who was a chef at the restaurant where he concocted Snacklins, became co-founders. (McGear is no longer involved in the company.) In less than a year, their product was being sold in local Whole Foods stores.
A growing appetite for snacks
The founders had hit on a burgeoning trend before the product's market was even clear. Or, rather, a convergence of trends that gave Snacklins multiple markets it could appeal to. The International Food Information Counsel Foundation recently called "new spins on old classics" one of the trends to watch for 2020, while two of Whole Foods' 2019 trends are "upgraded snacks" and "faux meat snacks." The IFIC predicts that this year "food companies will also make more progress toward the holy grail: plant-based products that more closely mimic the taste and other positive attributes of meat." The global health and wellness food market is expected to grow 5.84 percent year-over-year through 2022, according to market research firm Technavio.
As healthy eating, gluten-free diets, and veganism all have gained steam, they've spread into the snacking category. Still, that hasn't kept Americans from buying classic junk foods in far greater quantities, according to Nick Desai, the CEO of Snack it Forward, which makes Snacklins competitor Peatos, a crunchy cheese-flavored snack that's made from protein-packed peas instead of corn. In 2019, snack foods were a $43 billion market, according to research company IBISWorld.
For startups, that means a huge opportunity but also a huge challenge to market their products effectively. Desai says that despite Peatos' slightly healthier content, he isn't marketing toward a health-conscious consumer: "I think the market is going to shift back toward indulgence. These things--our love for fat and salt--are hard-wired into us." As the packaging for Snacklins has evolved, Kobrosly has made similar decisions. He's removed references to the snack being vegan from the front of package, which instead now has a tagline encouraging indulgent snacking: "Eat the whole bag!"
"We realized there was this inherent market for eating the whole bag of chips," Kobrosly says. "If I'm casually snacking, I'm going to stop eating when my hand hits the bottom of the bag. You don't need to know math to do that portioning."
After having bootstrapped his operation with his radio station salary and waiter tips, Kobrosly eventually got funding from the likes of Mark Cuban and the founders of ice cream startup Halo Top. He expects the company's sales to grow fivefold this year, and yield nearly $10 million in revenue for 2021.
The company is still scrappy, running its own 5,000-square-foot production facility in Maryland. That means it's up to Kobrosly to camp out in his car overnight outside the door when a new piece of machinery gets stuck on its way in, as happened one night in January.
He doesn't mind--he says his years in bars and kitchens taught him to "burn [his] knuckles, and get down and dirty." Or maybe the middle of the night makes him reminisce about those nights with his buddies just four years ago, hijacking the fryer in his friend's restaurant basement.