Protes protein popcorn (available in white cheddar and sweet cinnamon flavors) will arrive in 5,000+ stores this spring including GNC and Giant Eagle, said Krik Angacian, co-founder at brand owner Proformance Foods, which has notched up explosive growth this year with its pea-protein-fueled chips (now in 10,000+ stores from Vitamin Shop to HyVee and CVS).
“I presented the popcorn to a few select customers and every single one that tried it said let’s bring this in right away. It’s air-popped, whole grain, non-GMO, lower fat, and guilt-free, but it offers 10g protein, which is something new for the category. But what really surprised them was the taste and the mouthfeel. The vegan cheddar tastes exactly like white cheddar popcorn. There’s no compromise.
“Ready to eat popcorn is becoming more commoditized in my eyes as all of the innovation is in branding and flavor. There’s nothing really functional. We’re bringing function to a high-growth category and we think this will be more mass market than our chips, which are attracting fitness enthusiasts, Crossfitters, body builders and so on. We also think the popcorn skews a bit more female than our chips.”
‘We just could not get a vegan white cheddar product to taste good with 10g protein’
The initial plan had been to develop a vegan product, said Angacian, who uses pea protein in his protein chips. But ultimately, he and co-founder Ryan Wiltse opted for whey protein isolate.
“We wanted something with at least 10g of protein because any less than that and the sports nutrition consumer won’t be interested, but we just could not get a vegan white cheddar product to taste good, it had this awful grainy mouthfeel and taste. We tried pea, rice, hemp and other proteins but once we added in the level we wanted it just got too granular.
"One formulation we worked on was close, but the pricing was off the charts, and we didn’t want to sell a 10-dollar bag of popcorn.
“Eventually I sat down with Ryan and said are we a vegan protein company or are we a protein snack company? And we made the determination that we are a protein snack company, and once we started working with whey protein isolate, we came up with something that tasted phenomenal. It has a very familiar taste, texture and mouthfeel but delivers all that protein as well.
‘Most grocery retailers are 5-10 years behind the trends on sports nutrition’
Proformance Foods, which closed a $1.2m financing round last year (and changed its brand name from ProTings to Protes following a trademark dispute with B&G Foods) has been on fire over the past couple of years, said Angacian, a sports nutrition enthusiast who says the category has changed rapidly since he entered the market via a soft launch in 2013.
“Most grocery retailers are 5-10 years behind the trend when it comes to sports nutrition, and they are playing catch up because the highest growth categories in many of their stores are the sports nutrition sets and the supplement sets. So they are looking at retailers like GNC and asking how can we replicate that, what are the highest turning items, not necessarily big tubs of protein but things like grab and go items like chips and cookies and brownies.
“It’s really interesting to see how the sets have evolved. Until recently, it was just legacy products like Boost and Atkins, but Millennials and people looking for next generation items don’t really touch that stuff anymore. Now you have protein chips and nut butters and cookies and so on and the set especially in the past year or two has really evolved.”
Sports nutrition has become much more mainstream, accessible
He added: “The whole sports nutrition category has become so much more accessible to the mainstream consumer. My mother now drinks protein in the morning, and she’s not a fitness buff. So you’re seeing chains like GNC rebrand stores to become less intimidating to mainstream consumers, but at the same time grocery stores recognizing that health and wellness is not just about kale and sprouted grains, but also about protein and fitness and working out.
“The rise of Amazon has been a big part of that too. The channel as a whole is growing tremendously and as a consumer, as well as a brand in this space, I’d love to see more interesting products.”
Try the new protein popcorn at the Natural Products Expo West show next month (booth #N2014)
After months of burning the midnight oil honing their chip recipes at the end of long days working in corporate finance jobs in New York City, ProTings (now Protes) co-founders Krik Angacian and Ryan Wiltse - who were roommates at Boston College - first test-marketed their chips in a soft launch in 2013.
“We were cooking until three or four in the morning every night trying to figure it out,” recalls Angacian. “We tried vital wheat gluten, rice, soy, hemp and whey protein but pea was the best for getting the right crunch."
Protes chips got their break in sports nutrition outlets such as GNC and Vitamin Shoppe via the distributor Europa Sports Products, but have since expanded in to mainstream grocery chains from Hy Vee and Shop Rite, to Giant Eagle, CVS and Safeway/Albertsons. Today the brand is in around 10,000 stores and growing at a triple-digit pace.
While the protein chips category is becoming more crowded following the entry of brands including Quest Nutrition (milk and whey protein), Ips Chips (egg), Kay’s Naturals (soy), I Won Nutrition (pea), and Chirps (crickets), Protes is “the largest and most wildly distributed brand in this space,” claims Angacian.
“We’ve been growing at a phenomenal pace, we’ve tripled sales each year for the past three years.”