Cohen, who spends an unhealthy amount of time hanging out at grocery stores to see what makes consumers tick (“My wife sends me out for a quart of milk and I come back four hours later”) came across the product a couple of years ago after selling SkinnyPop and was immediately struck by the distinctive branding – and how he wanted to keep eating it (always a good sign for a snack product).
On a whim, he looked the brand up online (Rex’s Outrageous), and fired off an email to the founders (Daren and Annette Rexroad). Daren (‘Rex’) responded the same day, and within months, Cohen had acquired the brand – in which the Rexroads retain a stake, and key roles – and set to work.
It was a great American story
“All the ingredients [for success] were there,” says Cohen - who has developed and sold a clutch of snacking brands over the past 15 years (Mamma Says biscotti, Sensible Portions, Rickland Orchards yogurt, SkinnyPop popcorn, Dippin’ Chips party snacks, and Mrs Thinsters cookies – and is currently a partner in Core Nutrition LLC and Chef’s Cut Real Jerky, which are growing at a meteoric pace).
“They had such a great story. Rex had got the recipe from his grandma for a snack she called ‘gravel’ and started manufacturing and selling it locally, and over the years, Rex’s Outrageous Road Crew Crunch had developed a cult following in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. They were so passionate about the business that they sold their house and moved into a Winnebago. It was just a great American story. They put everything on the line.
“But they didn’t have the right relationships or experience to get to the next level. I just thought if we could clean up the packaging a bit, move production to a facility that can handle larger customers, and work with our seasoned sales team we could take the brand to a different level.”
"Every week I ask people in the office to bring something unique or different they found in a store. Some of our greatest assets have come from people that weren't in marketing who brought something in and we've said, Wow! that's a great looking package, maybe we can do something along those lines?"
The Road Crew Crunch brand is resonating in all channels of trade
After a few tweaks to the packaging, a shift to a co-packing facility able to produce the product more efficiently, and a new – much lower – price point of $3.49-$3.99 (vs the original price of around $7.00, and “more in line with the barkThins and Brownie Brittles of this world,” he says), Cohen then embarked on an aggressive mission to get the product on the radar of retail buyers at leading grocery chains across the country.
And so far, he’s pretty excited about the feedback, with the product now in Sprouts, 3,000 Walmart stores, and about to go into 650 Sam’s Clubs, along with BJ’s stores on the east coast. It’s also about to be tested at Costco and several convenience store chains next year.
“The exciting thing is that it’s resonating in all channels of trade,” says Cohen, who says the brand is resonating with the same broad set of consumers that seem to be buying into barkThins, a fast-growing chocolate-based snacking brand recently snapped up by Hershey.
“People are looking for fruits, nuts and fairtrade chocolate to snack on in a convenient and affordable package. We think this could be a $40-50m chocolate-based brand with some of the extensions we have planned, and if we add crackers and cookies, it could easily be over $100m."
But is a brand made of chocolate, cereal and nuts – non-GMO, Fairtrade and gluten-free certifications notwithstanding – really on trend in a climate where firms are under increasing pressure to make snacks more nutritious and healthy given that many consumers are now snacking throughout the day?
While Road Crew Crunch is not as healthy as carrot sticks and hummus or a handful of fruit and nuts, people still want to treat themselves, and if they are going to buy chocolate or candy, they are looking for a cleaner label and other call-outs that make them feel that some thought has gone into sourcing the ingredients, whether it’s fairtrade sugar or cocoa butter, or no artificial colors or flavors, says Cohen.
“Some people are focusing on calories or sugars, but others are more focused on ‘clean’ products.”
The meteoric rise of Chef’s Cut Real Jerky
So how is the snacking landscape evolving and where is the smart money going these days?
For a start, he says, there are more entrepreneurs (from ZICO founder Mark Rampolla to KRAVE founder Jon Sebastiani), that are now investing in the next generation of CPG brands, and can provide what traditional investors cannot – advice from the perspective of someone that has “already seen, or made, every mistake known to man" - as well as cold hard cash.
Right now, as CEO of Halen Brands (the other co-founder is Leigh Feuerstein), which is focused on making investments in innovative CPG products, Cohen is looking primarily at $5-10m brands. The focus right now is on allergy-friendly or plant-based protein snacks, two areas where he predicts “explosive” growth, but he's also looking for something that can scale rapidly and resonate across multiple channels.
"When we created Sensible Portions, I wanted it to be the Whole Foods choice product for middle America so you can go into Target or Costco or Sams and get a great product even though you can't afford to shop at Whole Foods. If we happen to get into Whole Foods, that's a win, but we're more focused on the bigger picture."
We were able to take their innovation and run with it in a way that they could never imagined
He’s also very excited about meat snacks brand Chef’s Cut Real Jerky – in which he is a joint investor with CAVU Venture Partners – which went from $400,000 to just under $40m in 18 months, a truly meteoric level of growth.
“It’s the highest velocity jerky on the market, and from the founders’ perspective they never thought they would so quickly be able to execute it, but by leveraging two successful entrepreneurs [Cohen and CAVU co-founder Rohan Oza] who had a deep organization that could quickly mesh with their brands, we were able to take their innovation and run with it in a way that they could never imagined," says Cohen.
The right structures to foster innovation
As for the current trend of big CPG companies swooping in and buying smaller brands, whether they will succeed or not will depend a lot on whether they have the right structures in place to give these smaller brands the attention they deserve as well as the freedom to do what they do best, he says.
“Hain Celestial has a team that’s used to working with a lot of little brands, and some companies such as Snyder’s are creating smaller divisions within their organizations to manage smaller brands such as Pretzel Crisps, and have separate sales teams, and that’s worked really well.”