They say if something isn’t broken, you shouldn’t fix it, but that didn’t stop Michael Tierney from improving on traditional s’mores.
While at a backyard gathering, Tierney nestled a piece of chocolate inside a split marshmallow before sliding it between two graham crackers – fully heating the chocolate and making the s’more much easier to eat.
Tierney’s creation sparked his mission to launch Stuffed Puffs, which makes marshmallows filled with milk chocolate at plants in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Producing Stuffed Puffs wasn’t an easy feat, since established manufacturers told Tierney, a fine dining chef by trade, it couldn’t be done. By designing his own equipment and manufacturing processes, he found a way.
Candy Industry recently spoke to Tierney, CEO of Stuffed Puffs, about the company’s founding, persevering when doors close in your face, and the challenge – and beauty – in starting from scratch.
CI: How would you describe your background in food?
MT: I have always had a love for food. By the time I was 13, I began working in a professional kitchen at a Sur La Table teaching kitchen as an assistant. I built foundational culinary skills and worked for free, but I was happy to exchange short-term income for knowledge.
My passion around food never stopped growing and I knew I wanted to be in the food industry. I graduated from The Culinary Institute of America, working at top-flight fine dining establishments, including The French Laundry in Napa Valley and Eleven Madison Park in New York City, before leaving the world of fine dining to start Stuffed Puffs.
CI: How did you get the inspiration for stuffing the marshmallows with chocolate? What didn’t you like about traditional s’mores?
MT: In 2008, I was 19 years old and sitting around a campfire in a friend's backyard. Everyone was roasting s’mores, but the problem at the time was that I didn’t find s’mores all that appealing. For me, the issue with a traditional s’more is that the chocolate never melted — it was always ice cold and slid around the graham cracker.
I carefully split apart a marshmallow and placed a piece of chocolate inside, seamed it back together and put it over the fire. This is something I’ve come to find out that millions of people have done before. The result was an ooey, gooey chocolatey s’more, just like the ones you see in the TV commercials but can never replicate. I felt like I invented the wheel or something monumental and couldn’t get the idea out of my head. To me, it seemed so obvious.
CI: When exactly did you found Stuffed Puffs? How was the launch?
MT: I was working at Eleven Madison Park in New York City but continued to obsess over the idea for Stuffed Puffs. In 2012, I decided to go for it. I went all in from Day One and left the restaurant, moved out of the city back home to Long Island, and told myself that if in six months I can't make progress and raise some funding I will go back to the three Michelin star restaurant world.
I made the first Stuffed Puff by hand in my mom’s kitchen, and shortly after, started building machines in the basement to prototype the technology. I then started looking for partners and meeting with everyone in the candy industry from manufacturers to equipment suppliers.
Everyone in the candy industry said Stuffed Puffs were impossible to make. I was literally laughed out of the building while meeting with potential partners on more than one occasion. The party line was something to the effect of “we’ve tried it and it’s not possible – go get a job and let this go.” I just refused to accept that as a possibility, and when somebody challenges me to do something, that is when I get the most motivated.
Raising capital for a company that had as much resistance around production feasibility is quite challenging. I started another brand to help buy time for Stuffed Puffs. It began as catering then morphed into a partnership with a very small, forward-thinking health food store in Long Island. Eventually, it grew into a brand called Mikey's, which is a frozen, better-for-you, gluten-free brand that you can find today at about 10,000 stores. Finally, in 2018, Mikey's partnered with an CPG venture group in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania called Factory, LLC that opened the door for Stuffed Puffs.
Rich Thompson, managing director at Factory, saw my vision and believed in the art of the possible. His support brought investment from Factory that empowered the Stuffed Puffs vision, allowing me to bring our technology to life at our first facility in Wisconsin. Then in 2019, we began shipping product for the first time nationally thanks to an incredible partnership with Walmart.
DJ Marshmello is an equity partner that we brought in right before we launched the product. He's been a great partner and really boosted the success of the launch, thanks to his massive social following. He continues to support the brand and we have some exciting marketing efforts coming in 2021 that continues to leverage the partnership.
CI: What manufacturing challenges did you face? How have you overcome them?
MT: What challenges did we face? All of them! After years of being told by manufacturers and equipment suppliers globally that “it can’t be done,” we were on our own to figure it out. Not having roots in large-scale food manufacturing was a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to approach the problem without guardrails. It also allowed me to think outside the box and look beyond just food manufacturing to create unique solutions to our problems. Knowing very little about “the way things are done” allowed us to do things that are against convention.
When we built our first facility in Wisconsin, we custom designed everything. Most of it we were doing ourselves, piecing everything together to what became the scaled version of my Rube Goldberg machine from my mom's basement years before.
CI: Does Stuffed Puffs have its own manufacturing facility? Or does it have a manufacturing partner?
MT: Since we brought Stuffed Puffs to life through our own developed proprietary technologies and processes, we needed to build our own manufacturing facilities. Currently we operate two plants: our first being outside of Milwaukee in Wisconsin and our newest in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Our new facility is over 150,000 sq. ft. and can scale to over $500 million in capacity thanks to the advanced robotics and technologies we’ve installed.
CI: What has the response been from customers? How has the response been from retailers?
MT: Since the launch, the response has been phenomenal. We continue to receive glowing feedback from consumers and have built a strong social following to support our growing community of fans.
Retailers have been blown away with the innovation we have brought to a stale category. Not only have they been excited about the product, but they have really leaned in to partner with us on large display vehicles to get Stuffed Puffs prominent placement in the front of their stores.
CI: Do you have plans to expand?
MT: Stuffed Puffs is expanding every day. In just two years, we will have approximately 30,000 retail locations carrying our products by mid-summer 2021. We are entrepreneurs at heart, so whether it’s expanding our retail partnerships, or innovating new items, we are always hungry for smart expansion.
CI: Do you have plans to introduce any new varieties?
MT: Currently, our product portfolio includes our Classic Milk Chocolate, Chocolate on Chocolate, Chocolate Peppermint Bark and our individually wrapped Halloween and Easter items. We spend a lot of resources and focus on product development and innovation, and in a few weeks, we’ll be announcing a brand-new flavor that we think will resonate with our fans.