When thinking about natural, organic or better for you brands, sometimes it can be hard to avoid getting swept up in a tidal wave of green juice, HPP hummus, and non-dairy cheese. But at a time when Wal-Mart and Kroger are among the top organic and natural products retailers, it’s the brands that are able to cross the divide between “health conscious” and “health aspiring” consumers that are finding some of the greatest traction in the marketplace.
Jerry Bello, the CEO and founder of his current gig, Pasta Chips, is a master at crossing that divide, be it through discovery, investment, or a straight-up startup. The inventor of Sensible Portions, he’s back in the ring with Pasta Chips, yet another attempt to help consumers lighten up, try something new and different, but not alienate the everyday shopper.
“We try to create a product that has healthful or beneficial qualities enough that the uber healthy people will accept it and try it, even though they might not eat it daily, but that is also relatable to the mainstream masses,” Bello said. “I think there’s a nice road right in between.”
Bello recently ramped up the hiring for the brand, bringing on sales talent from Brownie Brittle, Kettle Chips, Popcorn Indiana and Deep River Snacks. He also brought on $3 million in financing from Advantage Capital Agribusiness Partners, LP (ACAP), Silas Capital and Emil Capital Partners. If it succeeds, it will be just another snack shaped notch in the belt of what has been a remarkable startup career.
“I think he sees where the industry is going…because he understands what regular people want,” saud Caue Suplicy, CEO and founder of Barnana, a product Bello has invested in. “He can think like them in that way, and create things that…can go mass market right away.”
A pharmacist by schooling, Bello got his start with a biscotti business in the late 1990s. After selling that brand to Nonni’s Foods in 2005 for over $25 million, Bello went on to start Sensible Portions, the company best known for inventing the crunchy, low-fat “Veggie Straw.” Joining with co-founder and president Jason Cohen to grow the brand to over $100 mil in annual sales, it was acquired by Hain Celestial in 2010.
But Bello wasn’t done yet: moving to Florida, he met Sheila G. Mains, who had started a new company called “Brownie Brittle.” Bello so believed in the brand that he went in as 50/50 partner and provided the capital and leadership team to help the company move out of Mains’ small kitchen. It’s now a natural products mainstay, staffed by former Glaceau sales executives and in over 20,000 stores, including every major retailer in the U.S.
And he’s still not done. While he’s still involved in Sheila G.’s Brownie Brittle as an investor and board member, Bello has moved on to another snack creation: Pasta Chips. Made out of a pasta dough composed of durum wheat semolina flour, Pasta Chips resemble classic pasta shapes but have the texture of a chip or cracker. The grains give fiber and heft, but also provide a better nutritional profile than that of a chip.
“Imagine an old fashioned wooden tennis racket being the pita chip and our pasta chip being like a new graphite, stronger and lighter [racket],” Bello told NOSH.
By its second year, Pasta Chips saw sales of more than $10 million and currently is in over 15,000 retailers nationwide.
Bello has a reputation for inventing healthful new takes on classic favorites. Rather than trying to convince consumers to make big taste swaps in order to see big health benefits, Bello’s products tend to encourage consumers to take baby steps.
For example, Veggie Straws were fried but offered hidden vegetables and less fat. Brownie Brittle, while a dessert item, encourages sensible portions and has fewer calories than a traditional brownie.
Similarly, Pasta Chips are designed to carry other ingredients, much like a pasta carries a sauce. The first incarnation, ravioli-shaped chips that were, intentionally, slightly underseasoned to complement other foods, was designed to go with everything from hummus to cheese to meats and dips.
It launched in the deli set, where consumers were more open to taking a risk on a new product, Bello said, because they are shopping for entertaining and looking for new products they can use to surprise and delight their guests. It’s a strategy that paid off handily for salty snack competitor Pretzel Crisps.
Now Bello is ready to take aim at the faster-turning salty snack aisle, going after the big players with a new puffed Pasta Bowtie. The line started shipping in August to stores on the West Coast, including Safeway and Albertsons, and by the end of the year will be in Sam’s Clubs, Costco and Ahold stores.
To help ramp up this growth, Bello has brought on his new sales team. Additionally, Pasta Chips will be using Snyder’s Lance for direct store delivery (DSD) to allow the brand higher touch points on shelf.
“Primarily out West, they don’t take care of their snack section that well because it’s a high turnover category,” Bello said. “If you go out of stock, the big boys will come and take that empty space.”
But it’s not a huge rollout yet — just a disciplined one, with a veteran’s eye toward the next move — or the next raise.
“In theory, we had double that money available to us now, but it would be better for me to raise half of it now at the current valuation,” Bello told NOSH of the last, $3 million round. “If we execute our plan and we need more capital in a year from now, it might be at a valuation that’s one and a half or two times today, which would be half as dilutive.”
In 2017, Bello said, innovation will be at the fore: anything that can be done with pasta can be replicated with Pasta Chips. This means whole grains, ancient grains, gluten free flours, and bean based flours are all on the table.
At some point, if Bello follows his previous brand’s trajectories there will also be an exit. “I’m an entrepreneur and a creator at heart, and I just love the front end of the business. Which is grueling and painful. I must be a masochist,” Bello joked to NOSH. “I like the front end of businesses where you’re laying in the operations, the capabilities, creating the product, the marketing angle and perspective. I love that.”