By Marina Mayer
When Michael Season developed the reduced-fat potato chip, he wasn’t trying to become a pioneer. Rather, he just wanted to make better-for-you snacks that tasted good.
Now, more than two decades later, he’s paving the way for what’s no longer a niche market for the health-crazed consumer. That’s because not only are his snacks still in season, but they also are blossoming into a category all its own.
Despite the onslaught of healthful snacks, Season is sticking to his original script that has made his brands a success.
“When we develop a product, we try to make sure it fits the [outline]. That’s part of what we’re recognized for,” says Season, president of Addison, Ill.-based Natural Snacks, LLC, the maker of Michael Season’s and Mexi-Snax branded snacks.
Natural Snacks also is recognized for its ability to create a lineup of reduced-fat and wheat- and gluten-free baked crisps, puffs, curls, tortilla chips and potato chips. For its focus on innovation over the years, Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery has named Natural Snacks the magazine’s Snack Company of the Year.
“We’re the No. 1 natural traditional-style, reduced-fat potato chip [company, according to SPINS data, ending 11/28/09],” Season says. “Our consumer, or who we target as our consumer, is the crossover consumer, the person that maybe wasn’t raised on natural foods but has decided for whatever reason to seek a healthier lifestyle. We’re trying to offer them a natural alternative that’s better for you.”
To reinforce its position in the salted snack industry over the past 15 months, Natural Snacks has launched more than eight new products that are made with all-natural, wheat- and gluten-free ingredients and seasonings and contain zero artificial flavors, colors and preservatives and no hydrogenated oils.
“From the onset, since the mid ‘80s, we’ve been on the cutting edge of developing snacks,” Season says. “Our objectives have always been to create [snacks] that are better for you, that taste good and are different and somewhat unique.”
For instance, the Thin & Crispy brand, which is produced by a Dayton, Ohio-based co-packer, accounts for 50% of the company’s sales, Season says. This line of potato chips is made with all-natural ingredients and includes such varieties as Lightly Salted, Lightly Salted Ripple, Unsalted, Honey Barbeque, Salt & Pepper and its newest introduction, a Mediterranean flavor that is made with potatoes and a combination of garlic, onion, oregano, rosemary and basil.
Meanwhile, Natural Snacks’ other lineup of snacks, which are both co-packed out of Madera, Calif., and Perham, Minn., offer less fat and more grains.
Michael Season’s Baked Potato Crisps, for example, provide up to 80% less fat than regular potato chips and are sturdy enough to handle dips and salsas yet easy enough to snack right out of the bag. They come in Original, Sweet Barbecue and Cheddar and Sour Cream varieties.
The Baked White Cheddar Cheese Pops are made with real white Cheddar cheese and shaped like puffy popcorn, while the Baked Hot Chili Pepper Cheese Curls boast a zesty kick of hot chili peppers. Both kinds contain 50% less fat.
Likewise, its Baked Cheddar Jalapeño Puff variety delivers 50% less fat and offers the perfect balance between real Cheddar cheese and the simple heat of Jalapeño peppers.
Additionally, Michael Season’s Baked Multigrain Chips contain 33% less fat than the leading multigrain chip and offer 12 g. of whole grains in each 1-oz. serving. This lineup comes in Original, Cheddar and Honey Chipotle options.
The company takes additional steps to ensure that its products are wheat- and gluten-free and makes sure consumers are informed about them.
“We have them tested by an independent lab every three months,” Season notes. “Those test results are posted on our Web site, so we take these claims seriously.”
To freshen up the brand, many of the Michael Season’s products also underwent a mid-year packaging makeover in 2009 with the launch of the 100-calorie, single-serve choices. In addition to a smaller size bag, the redesigned packaging contains mouth-watering product photos and an updated “Feel Good Snacking” logo on the front of each single-serve bag.
“In the last 15 months, we have gone through a complete regeneration of our packaging,” Season says. “So we’ve redesigned all of our packaging, and it’s all now part of the same family. That’s doing a lot to make us more brand-conscious and growing the brand instead of just having items.”
Under the Mexi-Snax umbrella, the company rolled out Whole Grain Blue and Whole Grain White tortilla chips. Made from organic ingredients such as corn, quinoa, sesame seeds, flax seeds and black beans, these all-natural stone-ground tortilla chips deliver the Whole Grain Certification because the grains contain all three parts of the original grain, and they offer one serving of whole grains in each 1-oz. serving.
Evolution in Time
However, Season wasn’t always known for his battery of reduced-fat chips. Just like his products, his career also has evolved as he found new ways to tap into and leverage each changing consumer trend.
In 1976, for instance, Season moved his wife and children from Peoria, Ill., to Oregon to try his hand at organic farming. From that Oregon farm, Season and his family developed one of the largest natural foods distributorships in the United States and was one of the first companies to distribute Kettle Chips, Season says.
Then, in 1983, Season sold that company, maintained his agreement to sell Kettle Chips east of the Rockies, moved back to the Midwest, bringing his Kettle Chips with him, and started a kettle-cooked potato chip manufacturer under the name Season’s Enterprises, Ltd. But there was only one problem.
“We couldn’t get Russet potatoes that hadn’t been in cold storage or stored properly, so we couldn’t fry them,” Season says. “We had all this equipment and we cancelled the agreement with Kettle Chips. From there, we started making potato chips with white, round potatoes. And the potato broker [that also supplied Jay’s, which at the time was still a family-owned company] would stop off at my plant, I would take off what I wanted, then it would go to Jay’s, weigh the truck and whatever was taken off, the broker would charge me for it.”
After maxing out the capacity of his plant, Season turned to a co-packer in Ohio to produce his chip lines for $1 a case cheaper than what his own facility was churning out, he says.
A short time later, Season took on some venture capital and became a minority stockholder, but he eventually bought back his company.
In the early ‘90s, Season developed what was at the time called the 40% Less Fat potato chip, which only contained 6 g. of fat versus its regular chip counterparts that delivered 10 g. of fat.
“Due to the success of the reduced-fat potato chips, I was able to buy all the stock back from the investment group and give them a profit,” Season says.
In January 2007, Season’s Enterprises merged with Mexi-Snax, a tortilla chip producer based in Berkeley, Calif., to form Natural Snacks, LLC.
Today, the company’s main distribution is in the health food, natural food and supermarket natural foods environment, which accounts for nearly 50% of its $10 million-plus sales, Season says.
“We go through specialty distributors as opposed to direct-store-delivery distributors,” he notes.
Instead of farming out his products to various test groups, Season tries to get his employees involved with his objectives and help claim ownership in the company.
“Once I get a sample and I think it’s good, then I walk around and ask everyone here, ‘What do you think?’” he adds. “If it meets a good approval in the office, then we take it out to our friends. Once we think we have something, we send it to our brokers and key accounts in a plain bag with a label on it. Then if we get positive feedback, we’ll take that product with a mockup of what the bag will look like and we’ll sample it out [at the next tradeshow].”
Unlike previous years, though, the company’s new products’ pipeline will have to subside as Season concentrates on branching out the business into additional markets and targeting more consumers.
“Our goal is to double our business within the next five years, and we’re going to do that by focus, focus, focus,” he says. “We have our top-selling items, and we’re going to focus on getting those top-selling items in more places.”
Whether it’s a 50-year-old-plus consumer or just someone looking to eat healthier, Natural Snacks offers all that is better for you year-round.