The startup he helms isn’t a startup in the traditional sense; it’s a revamped version of the small snack company Skeeter Nut Free founded by Dave Leyrer and Pete Najarian, both are parents of children with severe allergies. The brand had plateaued, and the two founders called on Holsworth, who has worked at Muscle Milk and PepsiCo, to steer it into a new direction.
“What they said was they wanted to make a cookie, or some food, for kids that was safe and that was fairly priced,” Holsworth recalled. Specifically, they wanted the company to create products targeted at a wide audience, but safe enough for consumers that can have a severe anaphylactic reaction from exposure to even trace levels of allergens.
During his brainstorming session with the two founders, Holsworth proposed ditching the Skeeter name and creating a company with a wider portfolio of products, from cookies to bake mixes to gummies to pasta sauce, all targeting people with nut allergies.
“An anaphylactic reaction in a child [can be] the exact same if you’ve eaten 20 peanuts, or someone who had a peanut butter sandwich 10-hours ago happened to brush your hair,” Holsworth added. “So people live this terrifying way, and these are profound issues for these families, they can’t buy anything they aren’t sure is safe.”
Growth strategy: Route to market and acquisitions
Safe + Fair Food Company is the first investment for Acre Venture Partners, Campbell Soup’s venture capital arm, which led the first investor round that totaled $10m. Its first line of products is the reincarnation of Skeeters Nut Free, offering the same chocolate chip cookies and graham crackers, but this time named Abby’s and Remy’s, after the founders’ children.
These two products will go down the same route as their predecessor Skeeters by going directly to schools, Costco (with rotations every season), and an airline partnership with JetBlue. Coming next is a line of bake mixes called Good-to-Give, slated to launch online in July together with Skeeters’ relaunch as Abby’s and Remy’s.
In addition to these two in-house developed brands, the company recently acquired Mama Jess Organics, which produces a line of pasta sauces. “We look to acquire businesses—only EBITA positive businesses, rebrand them, and then allow them to have interaction with the 17 million families [with allergies] that we know desperately need different types of foods,” Holsworth said.
It’s all in the packaging
One of the big market voids Holsworth noticed in the allergy category was package design. He thought what was on the market often looked too youthful and hyper-targeted at children, so having an in-house designer was important for Safe + Fair Food Company, he said.
“For food allergy families, there’s this stigma that you have to eat ‘weird stuff,’” Holsworth said. But with well designed-packaging, parents of children with allergies can feel empowered to ask other parents to buy allergy-friendly products for play dates, birthdays, outings, and so on. “We wanted to create packaging that we want in our house, premium packaging that’s clear and concise.”
It’s not just the design and nut-free iconography that Holsworth is relying on to give allergy-households peace of mind—it’s also a partnership with Stanford Medicine’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma Research, one of the world’s largest research centers for allergies, which is mentioned on the front of pack.
Part of the partnership is donating 3% of all Safe + Fair Food Company proceeds to the center to support science, research, and care, and the latest research from Stanford will be posted and shared on the Safe + Fair Food Company website.
“The partnership gives us a level of credibility that will be very, very hard to match,” Holsworth said. “Other brands in this space tend to yell directly at the [allergy households] and say ‘Hey, we’re allergy free,’ but what we’re trying to is say our food is safe and fair, and it’s super approachable.”