Revenues at the Austin, TX-based firm tripled to $6.8m in 2014 and tripled again to $20m in 2015 as the EPIC brand - which first hit shelves in 2013 and is now available nationally in chains from Whole Foods to Kroger – continued to lure new consumers to a category (premium meat snacks) that has rapidly gone from lukewarm to red hot.
And while this meteoric growth has been financed thus far with the founders’ savings plus cash injections from angel investor Cameron Smith and Boulder Brands Investment Group, Collins said the company had grown so fast that teaming up with a strategic partner now made sense.
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after selling EPIC to General Mills for an undisclosed sum, he added: “I do believe in my heart that [co-founder] Katie [Forrest] and I could have achieved our goals on our own, but it would have taken so much time.
"We have a very small tight team and investor pool and we were getting to the point in time where we’d have had to raise a lot more capital to take the business to the next level. I guess we could have held out, but we felt like the time is now.
“So when the opportunity came to keep the same team and stay in Austin and operate independently of the General Mills mothership, it felt like everything we wanted to accomplish in 20 years we could do in 12 months, so it was just really exciting and we felt like we couldn’t walk away from this opportunity.”
Almost from day one we’ve had people trying to buy EPIC from us
But he wasn’t about to jump into bed with anyone waving money at the company, said Collins, who will continue to run EPIC with co-founder Katie Forrest from Austin as part of the Annie’s business (which was acquired by Gen Mills in 2014 and is based in Berkeley, CA).
“Almost from day one we’ve had people trying to buy EPIC from us and we had turned down three different suitors because they were just looking at EPIC as an opportunity to make money and they didn’t share our values.”
But what does General Mills bring to the table apart from money?
Multiple things including supply chain expertise, R&D expertise, access to new accounts and a broad distribution network, plus contacts, he said.
“We’ve been trying to recruit high level sales executives for a while but they have already put us in touch with two people that are just absolutely perfect for our brand.
"They also share our vision. We spent a whole day talking to [Annie’s founder and president] John Foraker and the executive team, and they were asking us about our goals. We said we’d love to impact a million acres of ranchland in the next 15 years, and they were like, why not make that five million acres in one year? Could we go bigger, better and faster?
“The purchase of EPIC is a bold statement from one of the largest food companies in the world. This acquisition is not about General Mills changing EPIC, but rather EPIC changing General Mills.”
EPIC bone broth set for Q1, 2016 launch
So what’s coming up next for the company, which started with bars, and has more recently introduced EPIC bites (whole muscle meat, superfoods, spices); ‘Hunt & Harvest Mix’ (beef jerky, fruits, nuts, seeds); EPIC Bits (bacon bits, chicken bits for salads); and EPIC animal oils (beef tallow, pork lard and duck fat)?
Bone broth, revealed Collins. Details of the savory ready-to-drink meaty beverage are being kept closely under wraps, but the plan is to launch the product – which will be stocked in bottles in the chiller next to cold-pressed juices and other premium beverages - in Q1, 2016, said Collins.
“You can drink it cold or heat it up.”
The meat snacks category had been lacking in innovation for a long long time
Like gourmet jerky brand KRAVE, which was gobbled up by Hershey last year, EPIC is part of a new wave of upmarket meat snacks designed to appeal to a broader audience (women, foodies, athletes) and has proved that “you don’t need to dress up in a sasquatch costume and market exclusively to college-age boys” to sell meat bars, said Collins.
While securing national distribution out of the gate with Whole Foods in its launch year (2013) was the kind of break most entrepreneurs can only fantasize about, EPIC has earned its space on shelf and proved that what many people might consider to be a niche product can have mass appeal, he added.
“EPIC’s Bison Bacon Cranberry bar is the #2 best-selling gluten-free nutrition bar in the natural grocery space based on SPINS data, so it’s for real, people are buying this stuff.
“Bite-size products and jerky trail mix are less intimidating, although the trail mix is basically an EPIC bar deconstructed. There is just so much opportunity for innovation and creativity in the meat space. I mean, it’s amazing to me that there hasn’t been really clean bacon bits for salads on the market before we came up with them.
“I think the meat snacks category had been lacking in innovation for a long long time and consumers are looking for cleaner labels, and innovation, but more than anything, they are interested in the source of the meat itself, where and how the animal was raised.”
As for the notion that only young men eat meat snacks, he said, Epic products “are actually equally consumed by men and women, which is pretty cool and what we were going for with the timeless classic packaging and gender-neutral look."
Annie’s president: EPIC is a highly authentic brand in an entirely new natural snacking category
John Foraker, President of Annie's, added: "The acquisition of EPIC positions General Mills for exciting growth with a highly authentic brand in an entirely new natural snacking category.
"A purpose-driven brand like EPIC perfectly aligns with the experience and capabilities set that Annie's brings to the table. EPIC has tremendous potential for growth in the natural snacking category.”
Click HERE to read our recent profile of EPIC.