Even in our crowded and highly competitive snack and bakery industry, when excellence emerges, people take notice. Such has been the case for Quinn Snacks and its co-founder and CEO, Kristy Lewis, which have racked up an impressive list of accolades over the past few years:
- Fortune, 2015 “Most Promising Woman Entrepreneurs”
- Food & Wine, 2016 “Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink”
- Progressive Grocer, 2016 “Top Women in Grocery”
- The Gourmet Retailer, 2016 “Editors’ Picks Awards”
- NCW Magazine, 2016 “Eco-Excellence Awards”
- Denver Business Journal, 2016 “Small Business Award”
- Prevention, 2016 and 2017 “Cleanest Packaged Food Awards”
Quinn Snacks can now add the top snack industry honor from Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery to the list as the 2017 “Snack Producer of the Year.”
The reasons behind this litany of honors, culminating with the 2017 Snack Producer of the Year, are many and varied, ranging from groundbreaking approaches toward supply-chain transparency to strong product innovation, including an altogether new approach toward microwave popcorn, catalyzing sales growth and putting Quinn Snacks on the map.
A popcorn paradigm shift
Since its founding in 2011, Quinn Snacks—named after Lewis’s first son—has pioneered a new approach to clean-label microwave popcorn that has taken the industry by storm. By the time Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery released its 2016 “State of the Industry—Snacks” analysis last summer, it was clear that the revolutionary microwave popcorn was catching on with shoppers. The microwave popcorn segment has seen perennial losses, down over 2 percent in dollar sales for our 2015 State of the Industry report on popcorn and then dropping another 3 percent for 2016, per IRI, Chicago. For the 52 weeks ending April 17, 2016, Quinn Snacks posted an over 62 percent gain for its microwave popcorn.
The story of Quinn Popcorn. From Quinn Snacks, Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery’s 2017 Snack Producer of the Year.
At the heart of this growth is a forthright company philosophy. While “transparency” is easily bandied about in food-trend discussions far and wide of late, Quinn Snacks lets its actions do the talking. The company’s “Farm-to-Bag” approach toward ingredient sourcing is comprehensive and enlightening, raising the bar across the food industry. Quinn Snacks products all come equipped with a batch code that, when entered on www.quinnsnacks.com/farm-to-bag, outlines ingredient origins and other discerning details, including a glimpse into the lives of the farmers behind the foods.
“Early on, we created a ‘Farm-to-Bag’ policy, introducing the first fully transparent supply chain in snacks,” says Lewis. “Consumers just enter the batch code printed on every snack Quinn makes, and the portal will show where the ingredients in that bag were grown. It is a radically transparent supply chain that connects people with where their food comes from. This is only the first step. I would love to push this even further as we grow.”
While organic and non-GMO sourcing is in place across the Quinn Snacks product lineup, the company is quick to note that its story is a journey, not a destination—that the company isn’t perfect, still continually work toward fulfilling its goals. In forthright fashion, Quinn Snacks notes that it is still working on select aspects of its product lineup, including biodegradable packaging options, while refining supply-chain sources to better align with its organic, natural-product ideals.
And when Quinn Snacks decided to branch out into pretzels to diversify its product lineup, it didn’t just formulate any old pretzel. Quinn Snacks made a clean-label, whole-grain pretzel spotlighting U.S. sorghum, a rising star from the ranks of ancient, nutritious, rediscovered grains—one that has a strong sustainability story, due to its water-efficient, drought-tolerant nature. The pretzels also just happen to be gluten-free.
“Sustainability quite literally starts from the ground-up at Quinn Snacks,” says Lewis, “where the priority is sourcing organic ingredients when we can, in order to dedicate more land to sustainable and chemical-free agriculture, and supporting American agriculture rather than importing materials at a lower dollar cost—which can add up to a higher cost for the environment. Further, we’re committed to giving our business to other green businesses: Our sunflower oil supplier has completely zero-waste practices in place, for example, and we are sourcing sorghum, which is one of the most drought- and water-efficient crops available.”
From Boston to Boulder
Quinn Snacks has traveled through considerable territory over the past several years. “We started in an unheated attic outside of Boston with the simple idea of cleaning up microwave popcorn,” says Lewis. “There were, and still are, a lot of burns and scars, but it has been a pure drive to put a cleaner, healthier and safer option into the market. In 2013, we moved the company to Boulder, CO, and it has been, hands-down, the best decision I have ever made for Quinn.”
In recent years, Boulder has grown into an entrepreneurial hub for upstart, innovative, natural, environmentally focused food companies. Other food companies that have incubated growth in Boulder include Boulder Brands (including Glutino and Udi’s gluten-free baked goods and snacks), Justin’s (candy, nut butters, snack packs), Rudi’s Organic Bakery (organic and gluten-free baked goods), Purely Elizabeth (granola), Made in Nature (dried fruit, snack mixes), Birch Benders (pancake and waffle mixes), Outrageous Baking Co. (gluten-free sweet breads), Little Secrets (candy) and more.
Boulder’s natural-foods network has deep roots. Natural, organic and specialty product specialist KeHE Distributors has an office in town. And the nonprofit natural-product support organization Naturally Boulder helps foster growth for many of these companies through educational programming, networking events, mentoring for entrepreneurs and events that bring together Colorado’s natural products community. Naturally Boulder’s resource bank includes contacts for business development, capital investment, financing, innovation, inspiration, manufacturing, marketing and supply chain.
Lewis steadfastly set about manifesting her dream. “I had this eight-year pipe dream of cleaning up microwave popcorn,” says Lewis. “I grew up with it, and I couldn’t believe that this chemical-laden snack was still on the shelves. No one was taking on the challenge of making a safer and healthier alternative. If no one was going to do it, I wanted a shot at it.”
A key challenge was the packaging, which Quinn Snacks calls the Pure Pop bag. “It meant a full 12 months of not sleeping, working as fast and as hard as we could to create the first and only clean microwave popcorn bag stripped of all chemical and plastic coatings. We ditched the susceptor, and replaced artificial and natural flavorings with pure and real ingredients.”
Quinn Snacks imbues its entire business with its philosophy. “We do things a bit different here,” says Lewis. “We put consumers first. We lead with honesty, transparency and trust. I wanted to create a snack company that cares about what they are putting into their food. To create a company that will share where the ingredients come from, how the products are made, and the types of manufacturers and suppliers we work with. I wanted everything to matter, everything to be better and everything be transparent.”
While ready-to-eat (RTE) popcorn and whole-grain pretzels have joined the Quinn Snacks product mix, the company’s Butter & Sea Salt microwave popcorn product remains its best-seller.
The microwave popcorn products have two components: the Pure Pop paper bag (yes, just paper) to house the popping corn and a separate pouch containing the oil and seasoning to apply and toss after popping. This approach aligned with the Quinn Snacks natural-foods mission and philosophy.
Now the company has determined a way to have everything in the popping bag like a traditional microwave popcorn product—without sacrificing the product’s natural-foods pedigree. Real Butter Tastes Better microwave popcorn was just launched this month at Natural Products Expo West.
“Quinn has been working on this product for over two years,” says Lewis. “It’s different from our current line in that we put all the ingredients in one pouch. This allows us to reduce our cost of goods, so we can ensure that this box gets to the shelf at a competitive SRP—safe and healthy microwave popcorn for all!”
This new product still uses the same bag. “We are using our Pure Pop microwave popcorn bag, butter, organic RSPO palm oil and expeller-pressed sunflower oil,” says Lewis. “As with all our products, this line will also be launching with our Farm-to-Bag transparency policy. Consumers will know where all the ingredients were grown, who grew them and the stories behind our suppliers.”
In 2016, when Quinn Snacks launched its whole-grain, gluten-free pretzels—in Classic Sea Salt and Touch of Honey—its approach to the formula differed significantly from other gluten-free pretzels on the market. The team skipped the corn starch—often a primary substrate in other gluten-free pretzels—in favor of whole-grain sorghum, and ingredient with story that fits in with Quinn Snacks.
In fact, every ingredient in the Quinn Snacks supply-chain network has a story to tell, and the company works tirelessly to establish just the right relationships with suppliers, including:
- Organic ‘Yellow Butterfly’ popcorn from Grain Place Foods, a family-run organic farm and organic grain supplier in Marquette, NE
- Whole-grain sorghum flour from Nu Life Sorghum Growers, a fourth-generation farm in Scott City, KS that has naturally cross-bred its sorghum to develop highly desirable characteristics
- Maple sugar from Butternut Mountain Farm, an 800-acre family-run tree farm 1,000 feet above Johnson, VT that tracks each barrel from farm to table
- High-oleic sunflower oil from Colorado Mills, an environmentally friendly, zero-waste company based in Lamar, CO that only uses pressure to extract the oil from the sunflower seeds
This level of transparency resonates with shoppers, and Quinn Snacks has grown its distribution range significantly over the years. But Lewis notes that they are just getting started. “We’re in many stores around the country, but still have a long way to go,” she says. “We are in many national retailers, such as Target, H-E-B, Whole Foods and Safeway, as well as natural and independent grocers.” She says that distribution to foodservice customers is just beginning.
On a mission
A passion for change clearly guides Quinn Snacks.
“We are working endlessly to create a brand that people can trust,” says Lewis. “I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I am transparent in everything I say and do—we run Quinn this way, and every single person who works here is of that caliber. They also want to change this industry, and they are willing to fight for it. We hire honest fighters at Quinn.”
An essential aspect of the Quinn Foods mission is the fundamental understanding that this work is bigger than any one company—that collaboration helps develop strong roots of change. “Everyone who works here wants to have an impact on our food system,” says Lewis. “In order to do that, we do things most companies wouldn’t do. We share suppliers—even with our competitors. We push very hard on our growers and farmers so we can have a positive impact on the environment. Most importantly, to work with us, you have to believe in our mission—that means manufacturing partners and growers, too. If they don’t, we just walk and find folks who do. We all have to believe that we can change the industry in order to do so.”
At A Glance
Company: Quinn Snacks
Headquarters: Boulder, CO
Products: Microwave popcorn, readyto-eat popcorn, whole-grain pretzels, popping kernels
Brand: Quinn Snacks
Co-Founder and CEO: Kristy Lewis
Director of Operations: C.V. Howe
Consumer Affairs & Logistics Manager: Ashley Strandburg
Operations & Logistics Coordinator: Pat Hughes
Marketing & Community: Dakota-Rae Westveer
The Quinn Snacks product lineup
- Real Butter & Sea Salt
- Vermont Maple Kettle Corn
- White Cheddar & Sea Salt
- Parmesan & Rosemary
- Just Sea Salt Organic
- Virgin Coconut Oil
- White Cheddar
- Classic Sea Salt
Whole Grain Pretzels
- Classic Sea Salt
- Touch of Honey