“I was at the Summer Fancy Food Show in DC in 2011, but I didn’t have a booth, so I was just walking around handing out samples guerilla-style, and the first person I spoke to turned out to be a Whole Foods buyer,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.
“I found out later that some buyers really don’t like this approach, but I just got lucky,” added Kitirattragarn, who has his ‘Eureka’ moment when his mother passed on a recipe for Thai lettuce wraps and the toasted coconut chips in them tasted so good he ditched the lettuce and started building a snack foods empire.
“We did just over $4m last year and this year we’re looking to do north of $8m."
When we’re on shelf next to other coconut chips, we outsell them
Unlike many food entrepreneurs, who spend years proving themselves in the natural channel before they attract the attention of conventional retailers, Kitirattragarn got his foot in the door of some big names early on, and his wares are now available in 6,000+ stores from Target to Safeway, as well as natural chains such as Whole Foods and Sprouts.
“Natural retailers are interested in the story and environmental attributes, whereas in the conventional channel they also want evidence that you've proved yourself in other channels, and we have that now. We’ve also got data showing that when we’re on shelf next to other coconut chips, we outsell them.
“For example, if you go to Sprout's, there's five different coconut chips in the same spot. But we’ve just got some data back showing that we performed 30% better than the second chip,” added Kitirattragarn, who is based in Berkeley, California, and sources, processes and packages his snacks in Thailand.
As for routes to market, he says he's still barely scratching the surface, with growth opportunities in club stores, drugstores, convenience stores, schools, college campuses and corporate offices all being actively explored.
We were piggybacking on the popularity of coconut water and oil
But why have his chips been such a hit right out of the gate?
While retail buyers were looking for simple, tasty and healthy snacks when he first started pitching his products, said Kitirattragarn, his timing was also good as coconut oil and coconut water were gaining popularity.
“Coconut was really trending up and we were piggybacking on the popularity of coconut water and oil and targeting retailers that were selling a lot of these products. But instead of selling them in the bakery aisle, we were selling them in the healthy snacks section by kale chips and fruits and nuts.”
It can be treacherous if you don’t know what you’re doing
Getting into the grocery channel is tricky and expensive, he said, while importing the product from Thailand means he’s also got a lot of working capital tied up in inventory that’s traveling across the Pacific. However, he has good gross margins and runs a very tight ship, so has so far not had to seek any outside capital, relying on his own savings, friends and family and a small business loan.
“The cost of doing business is just crazy and it can be treacherous if you don’t know what you’re getting into," he said. "People say if you manage to break even, you’re doing good.
“But I’ve taken a lot of advice from people that have done this before,” said Kitirattragarn, who has a degree in biological engineering and a masters in management from Cornell, and moved into sustainability research before venturing into the food industry.
His first full time member of staff was his brother Andrew, who has a background in accounting, said Kitirattragarn. “We were only about six months in and Safeway gave us a call and said they wanted us and I realized I needed his help. Next I brought in an operations person, and in this past three months we've hired two sales people, but we’re still looking for a marketing person.”
Consumers are looking for authenticity
So what’s next?
“At the beginning I didn't really think, let's make this into a big enterprise,” he said.
“I kinda just wanted to work for myself. And then as it grew, I realized there's a good opportunity here to create a platform brand that I can launch other products with, so next year we’re going to launch something similarly disruptive and innovative. But it's not gonna be a coconut based chip…
“So with our next product line, without going into too much detail, we’ll be competing with some of the biggest companies in America, so it’s going to be a David vs Goliath situation, but people are looking to eat healthy, eat whole foods, and they are looking or authenticity, and we can bring that to the table in a way that a lot of big established foods brands cannot.”