Snacking is the new normal, and snack foods continue to proliferate on the market, with an amazing range of diversity to appeal to practically any shopper demographic. Many new snacks cater to shopper needs and desires through formulation approaches dedicated to gluten-free, as well as clean-label.
One news snack that hits both of these rubrics is Element Snacks, New York, and its line of rice and corn cakes coated with either chocolate or yogurt. In order to learn more about this growing company and its products, we spoke to Nadia Leonelli, general manager of the company.
Douglas J. Peckenpaugh: How did you first get into the snack business?
Nadia Leonelli: Element started it all for me. I have a very different background, the media industry, although being able to “tell stories” has been a key advantage, even when selling rice cakes.
DJP: What led you to create Element Snacks?
NL: I am Italian AND gluten-free. Not an easy combination: I want simple, tasty food, I don’t like processed and too much sugar, and with the gluten limitation I have very limited choice of snacks and sweets.
DJP: How has AccelFoods factored into growth of the Element Snacks brand?
NL: Incredibly. AccelFoods has changed the way we operate, the approach to the industry and has helped us build a community and a network that we could not reach on our own, at least not in eight months.
DJP: Who do you see as the target shopper demographic for Element Snacks?
NL: Age 2–99, on the healthier side, reads labels, wants a treat without the guilt.
DJP: Which U.S. retailers currently carry the products?
NL: Whole Foods, Sprouts, Kings, Vitamin Cottage, Bristol Farms, Mollie Stones, New Season’s Fairway, Hy-Vee and many more. Lots of small stores and independents.
DJP: While rice cakes have been on the market in the U.S. for decades, corn cakes are less common. Why did you decide to offer both dark chocolate rice and corn cakes?
NL: They offer a different experience and we like to give options. We are experimenting with different grains, and the corn cakes are slightly more dense and chewy, but also thinner and more chocolaty. My husband loves them, I had to let him have them! We discovered there are rice people and corn people … it’s incredible to see how clear the opinions are. And, in general, corn cakes are more appreciated by men, so they reach a customer base that might not experiment as easily with rice cakes.
DJP: You note that Element Snacks are currently manufactured in Italy, but the company is based in New York. Does the brand see retail distribution in Europe? Have you ever considered opening a production facility in the U.S.?
NL: We do manufacture in Italy for a variety of reasons, including the fact that Italy is a non-GMO country with a strong agricultural tradition, so it’s much easier to find organic non-GMO ingredients from smaller farms, for example. We are definitely looking into retail in Europe, as well as other markets.
What we love of producing in Italy is the attention to details, the quality and consistency. And, of course, it gives me a chance of going home a couple of times per year on a “work trip”!
DJP: How did you decide upon using real yogurt as a coating for your Sweet Vanilla Orange and Strawberry ‘N’ Cream Rice Cakes?
NL: We were just looking for the right balance of creaminess and sweetness, and many of the more-standard creamy coatings were too sweet for us. We prefer a more European, less-sweet taste, and yogurt is perfect for that.
DJP: You clearly note that all products are non-GMO. Do you have any difficulty finding reliable sources of non-GMO corn for your Dark Chocolate Corn Cakes?
NL: No, because ALL CORN IS NON-GMO in Italy. Isn’t that great? And it’s not just the corn, sugar, rice, soy, milk … there isn’t any GMO at all—no hormones no antibiotics—anywhere in the food supply chain. Now you understand why we produce there!
DJP: How do you work with your ingredient suppliers to maintain strong ingredient identity?
NL: Our ingredient suppliers are mostly Italian (except cocoa beans). They all have a strong identity just because of our heritage. They are proud of what they do, and we are always surprised of the incredible flavors they present us, rooted both in tradition and innovation. Come by the booth at Expo West and taste our new flavor, and it’s a corn cake!
DJP: Do you think that your European background changes your perspective on the snack industry in the U.S.?
NL: Yes, we have a different perspective on the entire food industry, on the meaning of food itself, on the ritual of eating and what we consider food vs. “edible chemistry.” We have lived here 20-plus years and still cannot adapt to American portion-sizes or the amount of processed food on everyone’s plates. We sell snacks, but we consume them sparingly. We all suffer from that 2 p.m. energy low and look for something to give us a kick (yes, an ELEMENT), but besides that, we do not advocate for lots of snacking, especially when paired with sodas (we still don’t understand how people can drink a sweet soda with a meal, they just don’t go together).
On the other side we also don’t want to be extreme. When I was growing up in Italy, every kid ate an ice cream or popsicle per day in the summer. Many parents here think it’s too much sugar but we didn’t really have anything else sweet. No candy or sodas or sugar added in our food. We grew up playing outdoors, and having a freshly made, hand-made—not processed—ice cream from a small store in the late afternoon is one of the best memories of my youth. It never hurt anyone, and obesity or diabetes in children was almost non-existent.
DJP: On your website, you note that you leverage technology and “new manufacturing tools” to reduce the impact on the environment and be more efficient. Can you describe a few aspects of these technologies and tools, including how they reduce environmental impact and improve production efficiency?
NL: Our manufacturing is very efficient. We need few inputs and leverage a natural approach based on temperature and pressure. Our machinery is automated to minimize consumption, much smaller in size than the average U.S. machines, which means much faster turnaround and less waste.
DJP: What’s next for the brand? Do you have any new products in development?
NL: We have a new product launching at Expo West and a brand new look coming out in May. And that’s just the beginning. Many very exciting changes in 2016.