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Startup The Little Kernel shows when it comes to RTE popcorn smaller can be better

By Elizabeth Crawford

05-Dec-2016
Last updated on 13-Jan-2017 at 21:28 GMT2017-01-13T21:28:20Z

Source: The Little Kernel
Source: The Little Kernel

Based in part on the idea that good things come in small packages, the founders of The Little Kernel earlier this year launched a line of tiny pre-popped popcorn, which they say is sweeter, crunchier and easier to eat than regular sized popcorn because it won’t get stuck in consumers' teeth.

One of the biggest drawbacks of the popular popcorn category, is the hull often can become stuck in the back of consumers’ throats or in their teeth -- making the better-for-you treat slightly less desirable, said Chris Laurita, who along with Andy Epstein, co-founded and launched six months ago The Little Kernel.

But, Laurita said, the duo discovered a small kernel -- named the Lady Finger -- that is “virtually hulless, so when it pops there is nothing to get stuck in your teeth -- or barely gets stuck in your teeth.”

The small kernel also is appealing because it is easier for children to digest and “is so small the choking hazard is almost non-existent,” Laurita said. He added it also hits many on-trend claims, including being naturally gluten-free, non-GMO and the way the company flavors the product dairy-free.

The small popcorn, which is about half the size of regular popcorn when popped, also appealed to the founders for its taste profile.

“I think it is crunchier and has a little bit of a sweeter profile,” Laurita said. Epstein added that because it is popped in olive oil “it is the best tasting popcorn I’ve ever had -- and I’m not just saying that because it is mine.”

The duo rounds out the kernel’s unique taste profile by adding on-trend flavors, including Truffle Sea Salt, Sweet & Salty, Pink Himalayan Salt, White Cheddar, Butter and salt-free Naked.  Come January, they will add a Smores flavor.

Engaging packaging for all ages

In addition to being smaller than most competitors, The Little Kernel stands out on the shelf with jewel-toned packages that feature a little popcorn kernel colonel mascot who “at a young age [joined] the Flavor Brigade, hungry for a taste of adventure,” according to the company website.

The company plays up the military theme with camouflage print hidden on each bag -- sometimes in the sails of ship, under a bathtub or in street signs directing the mascot.

Laurita says the play on words not only tells consumers exactly what the product is but gives them a fun way to engage with the brand. The mascot makes the product appropriate for children, but also is grown-up enough for adults, he added.

Giving back

For Laurita launching the Little Kernel also met a personal need to find a better-for-you snack that was appropriate for and appealed to his autistic son.

“When he was diagnosed, my wife and I went out and were looking for snacks that he could eat that were non-GMO, gluten-free, dairy-free and there weren’t that many out there,” Laurita said. He added, “We also knew that a lot of retailers and consumers were looking for better-for-you options, especially with Millennials looking for these options” and wielding so much spending power.

But Laurita wanted to do more than just provide a snacking option for children with autism. He also wanted to give back to an organization that supported his family when his son was diagnosed with autism. As a result, a portion of all the company’s proceeds go to Generation Rescue, which offers information and treatment assistance to families affected by autism spectrum disorders, Laurita said.

The company also gives back to a charity for which Epstein is on the board, Laurita said.

For both men, giving back also “is a way to show our appreciation to the consumers who are buying the product and helping others in need,” Laurita added.

What are the emerging trends in snacks?

From sprouted mung beans to Japanese-inspired onigiri, the snacks market is a hotbed of innovation. But what’s next? Hear from Peeled Snacks, Dang Foods, Field Trip Jerky, Protes and board advisor and guru Brad Barnhorn at our FREE-to-attend online Snacking Innovation Summit on Feb 15.

Looking forward

While The Little Kernel already has significant distribution in more than 2,000 mom & pop stores as well as several national retailers including Sprouts, ShopRite, Roundy’s and Mariano’s, Laurita and Epstein aren’t satisfied and in the next six to 12 months plan to push forward with KeHE and UNFI.

The company plans to support the expansion and build consumer support by tapping its large social media network and leveraging the participation of Laurita and his wife in the reality show The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

Thanks in part to the show, the founders of The Little Kernel have a social media following which “goes into the millions,” Laurita said. “A lot of these bigger brands that are out there right now dominating the category cannot do what we can do on the social media level. So, we are taking advantage of that as being probably our biggest strength in competing.”

The company also is aggressively sampling the product at stores and events “to get it into as many mouths as possible,” Laurita said.

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