After spending years marketing products from Luna Bars and PopChips to thinkThin bars, The Good Bean co-founder Sarah Wallace knew a thing or two about building healthy snacking brands before she decided to put her money where her mouth is and go it alone in 2010.
But trying to get your voice heard - especially in the notoriously overcrowded bars market - is tough for a start-up however awesome your credentials are, admits Wallace, who launched her first product (roasted chickpea snacks) in late 2010 and her second (Fruit & No-Nut Bars, also with chickpeas) in May 2012.
Roadside vendors where I grew up in Bombay would sell roasted chickpeas in little paper cones
But unlike many new entrants to the natural/healthy snack market, The Good Bean brand stands out for two reasons.
First, it has great packaging, developed by co-founder Suzanne Slatcher, who worked as an animator at Pixar on films including Toy Story 3 and Finding Nemo before turning her talents to chickpea snacks, says Wallace.
“When we first started pitching the product, the branding really helped win people over. It pops off the shelf.”
Second, it’s built around the chickpea - aka the ‘good (garbanzo) bean’ - which is high in protein, low in fat, low-GI, gluten-free - says Wallace.
“I grew up in India and roasted chickpeas were a very common snack. I would get a paper cone full of them after school. But I never thought of them as healthy, just that they were tasty and warm and fresh.”
They are really tasty and satisfying, but you don’t feel guilty after eating them
While Americans are more familiar with chickpeas/garbanzo beans in a can or in a tub of hummus than in the snacks aisle, they ‘get’ that chickpeas are healthy and nutrient dense, and once they try the roasted variety, many people are addicted, she says.
“They are crunchy and have a mouthfeel that’s really addictive. They are really tasty and satisfying, but you don’t feel guilty after eating them, because they are high in fiber and protein and low in fat.
“The fact that they are gluten-free is an added bonus, but we don’t want to market them purely as a gluten-free snack. We have a broader base than just gluten-free.
“I think that this is really becoming the year of the chickpea. Look at quinoa and chia. People didn’t used to know what they were but now they are ubiquitous.”
People are looking beyond nuts and chips as snacks
So who’s buying them, and how successful have they been?
Today The Good Bean products are in around 1,000 stores nationwide in chains including Whole Foods Market, Wegman’s and Stop & Shop, and while they probably won’t be gracing shelves at Walmart any time soon, this are not a niche brand, she insists. “We are already profitable.”
In the beginning, she said, “We started off targeting the natural foods industry, but now we are branching out. So many stores now have an alternative snacks section where they stock vegetable chips, pumpkin seeds, jerky and so on. People are looking beyond nuts and chips as snacks.”
Women are target customers - and love the fact that the snacks are high protein and fiber - but they are also very popular with children, says Wallace. “The nut-free message is also a big selling point. They are made in a dedicated nut-free facility.”
There are so many SKUS that consumers are really just choosing between flavors
Wallace had a head start on most new market entrants having cut her teeth at Clif Bar and thinThin. However, taking the The Good Bean brand into the bars category was no walk in the park, she admits.
“They actually have a real point of difference because they don’t contain nuts, they are high protein and fiber but contain 40-60% less fat and many fewer calories than other leading bars.
“But if you look at the bar category now, it’s so crowded. I remember back in the olden days when we launched Luna Bars and people were asking us where they should put them. In the diet section next to the pharmacy?
“Today, new ‘healthy’ bar brands are being evaluated using the same metrics as Clif Bar and thinkThin and there are so many SKUS that consumers are really just choosing between flavors.
“[Getting into the healthy snack bar fixture] is almost as hard as trying to get into the mainstream snacks aisle [now] for a small company. I’d like to see more retailers carve out a space for interesting new products, or products that are nut free, hexane-free or gluten-free.”
Bars: It was a case of invention born of necessity
But why bother with bars given how saturated the market seems to be?
First, because they have something genuinely different, and second, when they started, Wallace and Slatcher - who are 50:50 equity partners - had a lot of chickpeas to play with, she admits.
“It was a case of invention born of necessity. We were good at branding and marketing but less so at inventory management; we’d bought a lot of chickpeas. I pitched the bars to Whole Foods and they said yes before we’d even manufactured the products, so we launched in May 2012.
“We actually have a huge following now and we’re holding our own, but you need to have more than a couple of skus in this market so we are working on some additional skus and we’re also changing our packaging.”
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good
So what advice would she give to other budding entrepreneurs?
First, get the brand right, she says. “I genuinely believe in brands driving product development, that the two must have a very close connection. You see with some brands that it’s a case of the cart leading the horse.”
But above all, she says, give yourself a break and expect to make mistakes: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”