The business, founded in 2012 by brothers Vincent and Andrew Kitirattragarn, who grew up living between New York City and Bangkok, is best known for its toasted coconut chips and Thai rice chips (a savory snack inspired by Northern Thai street food), but has not always had a clear strategy as to how to communicate its founders’ heritage to shoppers, said Vincent Kitirattragarn.
While he had in the past used the term ‘Modern Asian,’ this sometimes felt like he was apologizing for, rather than positively embracing, his Asian American roots, said Kitirattragarn, who now sells snacks in 13,000 stores nationwide, posted a 54% surge in total revenues in 2019 vs 2018, and doubled Dang Foods’ e-commerce sales over the same period.
“On our new packaging you’ll see Thai writing reflecting our mission to sell healthy flavorful snacks with flavors and ingredients from east and southeast Asia, and a baby picture of my brother and I on the back,” said Kitirattragarn.
“We’re the founders, and we’ve got this heritage, but some folks told us in focus groups that this wasn’t clear [from the branding], that Vincent and Andrew could be two tech bros that went to Thailand and found this product, when we were like no, we have tons of family in Thailand, this is our heritage, so we wanted to actually tell our story. So in future, you’ll see a lot more nods to that on the packaging.”
‘There are more Chinese restaurants in the US than McDonald’s, Subway, and Burger King combined’
He added: “We also have consumer research to show that Asian Americans are the #1 champions of our brands, out-indexing any other ethnic group, so we felt there was an opportunity to raise awareness of Asian food culture, which tends to be low sugar, whole foods/less processed, and more plant-based; whereas American food culture tends to be high sugar, highly processed, and meat based; we’re just being more overt about communicating how Asians have eaten for 5,000 years.
“We’re also going to do events where influencers get together and we talk about what we’re trying to do in terms of sharing Asian food culture. If you look at restaurants in the US, there are more Chinese restaurants than McDonald’s, Subway, and Burger King combined.
“Everyone is eating Asian food, but in the supermarket, it’s different story, so we’re putting Asian ingredients in familiar formats that people are used to, like chips and bars.”
‘We were the top selling bar in Whole Foods Market in the whole of 2019’
The keto-friendly Dang bar is perhaps less obviously inspired by Asian snack foods, although it does feature Asian inspired flavors such as cardamom chai, lemon matcha, toasted coconut and peanut butter - inspired by peanut satay dipping sauces rather than Skippy and Jif. (Kitirattragarn also has fun with flavors such as ‘Crazy Rich Chocolate.’)
The bar - which debuted online in September 2018 ahead of a nationwide launch in Whole Foods in January 2019 - was a hit right out of the starting blocks, but also sustained its early momentum, he said.
“We were the top selling bar in Whole Foods Market in the whole of 2019 and now we’re doing tests at Kroger and Walmart and Publix, so this year we’re testing how it will perform in the conventional channel. We’re typically the lowest sugar option in what I’d call the real food bar set [next to brands such as KIND].”
‘Lower sugar is here to stay, but I’d say keto is either at its peak or past its peak’
The stevia-sweetened bars – which contain 14-15g fat (from cocoa butter, coconut, and almonds), 9-10g protein (mostly from pea protein concentrate, but also from the almonds), 6-7g fiber (mostly from chicory root), and 2-3g naturally occurring sugar per 40g, 200-calorie bar – have a macronutrient profile that appeals to keto fans, but are not just for people on the keto diet, said Kitirattragarn.
“The keto bar category has exploded over the last year, so you even have bars that have keto in the brand name, but I don’t think that’s a good idea as if the trend goes down, you go down with it. It’s a keyword for us, but it’s not front and center. The entire bar set is moving towards lower sugar and lower sugar and lower carb is here to stay, but I’d say keto is either at its peak or past its peak.”
Dang Bars don’t have the look and feel of heavily-processed ‘special diet’ products, and contain ingredients (the #1 ingredient is almonds, followed by chicory root fiber, cocoa butter, pea protein, sunflower seeds, pea protein crisps, coconut, and chia seeds) that shoppers can understand, he added.
“There are a lot of folks looking for real food bars that don’t contain a lot of sugar.”
What sweeteners are consumers looking for or avoiding in bars?
While Dang Foods uses stevia in its bars, it has steered clear of sugar alcohols, which consumer research suggests some shoppers are avoiding.
While he is enthusiastic about allulose, he says some retailers “haven’t gotten on board with it yet... Whole Foods doesn’t allow it yet, but Sprouts does, so we’re doing R&D with it but not putting all of our eggs into one basket until we see what happens [with key retailers]. Consumer awareness is also still very low.”
The innovation pipeline
As for the innovation pipeline, Dang Foods has just launched three line extensions (Mango Coconut Chips, Sesame Thai Rice Chips, and Peanut Butter Dang Bar), but is also working on a new line of bars set to launch later this year or early 2021, he said.