Entrepreneurial cookie brand THINSTERS brings clean-label, bite-sized indulgences to the nation
Over the past few years, a number of notable food trends have developed incrementally stronger resonance with U.S. shoppers. Product dynamics like easy-to-understand ingredient statements, intriguing flavor innovations, and responsible snacking—but without a loss of pure sensory indulgence—speak to a growing American consumer demographic invested in thoughtful food choices.
Any one of these product dynamics can successfully drive increased shopper attention. But THINSTERS, a highly snackable, clean-label cookie brand born out of a savvy entrepreneurial spirit, unites all three of these top trends resulting in truly powerful product positioning.
THINSTERS is one of two brands launched by That’s How We Roll, based in Montclair, NJ (the other is the fast-rising ParmCrisps, a crunchy, 100 percent cheese snack).
“That’s How We Roll was launched in 2012 with Aldo Zuppichini and Jason Cohen,” says Sam Kestenbaum, CEO. Zuppichini had previously founded Snack Factory Pretzel Crisps, and Cohen had created Sensible Portions Veggie Straws. Both are serial entrepreneurs with great industry relationships and a strong history of execution.
This leadership dream team partnered to create the THINSTERS brand, working with a retailer who was looking for a thin, crunchy cookie, says Kestenbaum. “Four months from conception, we launched THINSTERS nationally with one of the largest customers in the U.S. It’s been a wild ride ever since.”
Private investment firm Clearlake Capital acquired That’s How We Roll in 2016, bringing an infusion of capital and business intelligence to catalyze growth.
“Clearlake Capital has been a great partner for us, both in strategy and capital,” says Kestenbaum. “Clearlake, just like us, was founded by a couple of individuals who are entrepreneurial in their space.” They understand what it takes to support their different businesses at various stages of development, whether that’s growth, profit, driving exposure, etc. “They understand what it takes to create a brand, because they’ve created one of the best brands in their side of the industry,” he says.
“Clearlake gave us capital and strategy,” says Kestenbaum. “Every new business needs growth capital. But it allowed us to go out and find the best and brightest for our team.” Today, That’s How We Roll consists of men and women with diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, coming from entrepreneurial brands, as well as some of the industry’s largest snack and bakery companies. “Clearlake shared the strategic vision with us that then allowed us to go and recruit the right people.”
The formula worked, and today, THINSTERS are distributed via over 10,000 retail locations from coast to coast, including independent stores and chains spanning traditional and specialty grocery, warehouse/club, drug, convenience, and more.
Building a brand
Once the team launched the THINSTERS brand and started sampling to build trial and brand awareness, momentum started to snowball. “What we realized very quickly was we had phenomenal repeat rates,” says Kestenbaum. “It was all about getting product into the hands of consumer.”
Initially retailing through warehouse/club stores brought great awareness due to the strong sampling programs the stores typically offer. “They have the scale in those demo programs and can reach out to thousands of consumers,” says Kestenbaum.
The THINSTERS team then reached out to other retailers to try the cookies. These efforts helped secure wider distribution, and now THINSTERS cookies are carried at top U.S. chains like Kroger, Albertsons, Safeway, Target, Costco, Ahold, Stop & Shop, ShopRite, Sam’s Club, Walgreens, and more, as well as a range of independents via natural foods wholesaler and distributor United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI). THINSTERS is also in the convenience channel, at some 7-Eleven stores, as well as Wawa and Sheetz. The entire THINSTERS lineup, including some special packs, is available on Amazon.com.
“We’ve done a really good job of creating a niche for ourselves,” says Kestenbaum.
The THINSTERS philosophy centers on using natural, non-GMO ingredients in bite-sized cookies that deliver outsized flavor, notes Kestenbaum. “We saw all these products in the marketplace made with high-fructose corn syrup, artificial ingredients, trans fats, and oil. But with the better-for-you movement, it’s not just about what’s not in your cookie, but what is in it. We use ingredients like real butter, real sugar, real chocolate chips, and real coconut to make our products.” This careful consideration applied to ingredient sourcing and formulation yields cookies with memorable, craveable flavor.
“We have a strong philosophy to keep our ingredients clean, transparent, and admirable,’ says Kevin Joseph, CMO. “We don’t use any artificial ingredients—no artificial flavors, no artificial colors, no artificial preservatives.” THINSTERS has also made a stand to not use any peanuts or tree nuts in its products. The products are made in a dedicated nut-free facility.
Kestenbaum notes that THINSTERS works with a contract manufacturer to produce its cookies. “We work primarily with one contract manufacturer. They’ve been a great partner of ours since the inception of the business and really showed the ability to be stewards of our brand. They invest with us, whether it’s production equipment, different types of packaging equipment, or different production capabilities, like for our seasonal and LTO cookies, including our chocolate-covered cookies. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.”
The regular range of THINSTERS includes flavors like Toasted Coconut, Chocolate Chip, Brownie Batter, Meyer Lemon, Vanilla Bean, and Key Lime Pie, available in different pack sizes. “We have 4-oz. packs of all of our flavors,” says Joseph. “We also have single-serve packs that are perfect for snacking. We have multipacks for a few of our flavors. We also have large packs that we sell in the club channel.”
The most-popular THINSTERS flavor is Toasted Coconut. “That has been our most-popular flavor since day one,” says Joseph. “It’s made with real chunks of coconuts that we source fresh. The flavor really comes through in the product.”
Its citrus flavors, like Meyer Lemon and Key Lime Pie, have also helped differentiate the brand, notes Joseph.
Seasonal flavors have included Pumpkin Spice, among others. “The most-recent seasonal items are Dark Chocolate Coconut and White Chocolate Peppermint,” says Joseph. “It’s the first time that we have enrobed our THINSTERS cookies in a chocolate glaze—one in white chocolate and one in dark chocolate. They were a huge hit. We released them in November of 2019, and we still get requests from our consumers asking for them. Our plan is to launch them again this holiday season.”
Another LTO project involved collaboration with the legendary musical group, the Grateful Dead. “In early 2019, we were looking for a brand partnership, one that would help drive our awareness to our consumers,” says Joseph. “We looked across different platforms, including movies, theme parks, sports, and gaming, and eventually we honed-in on music. Music tends to bring people together.”
The THINSTERS team ended up on the phone with Warner Music Group. Warner represents the Grateful Dead, including John Mayer, the band’s new frontman, and the band was touring during 2019. “We worked on a partnership with the Grateful Dead and John Mayer, who was really making a push toward a younger demographic,” says Joseph. “They wanted a young, hip, brand as a partner. It has been an amazing partnership that drove awareness for us—and retailers really like it. If you look up #GratefulTHINSTERS online, you can see a lot of consumer-generated content.”
Joseph notes that his analytical nature comes strongly to the fore when developing new products. “We’re a big analytical company. I realize that a lot of people like to make decisions based on their gut instincts, but that’s not my philosophy. I’m a very analytical person who makes data-driven decisions.”
So when it comes to identifying emerging trends, Joseph looks at first-party research data from companies like IRI, SPINS, and Nielsen. Then he dials things down into specifics. “I’ll look at trends in the cookie category. What flavors are growing? What formats are growing?” He also considers trends in adjacent bakery categories. “What are the trending flavors in cakes or doughnuts, or in other categories like sweets, crackers, or chips? I’ll also look at second-party research like Mintel. Additionally, we conduct surveys two or three times a year where we’re surveying our own consumers, and then the broader category of consumers, to figure out what they’re eating and what white space might be in the category.” This all leads to industry variables that are driving innovation, leading to the flavor lineup offered at THINSTERS.
One area of particular interest currently is specialized diets. “There’s no secret that health has been a trend for the last decade,” says Joseph. “People are more aware of their health, and some retailers are starting to only offer healthier products.” Dairy-free has grown, with products like almond milk—and, most recently, oat milk—rising in popularity. Vegan products are trending forward. Reduced levels of sugar are also top-of-mind for shoppers today.
These cumulative findings led to the most-recent innovation at THINSTERS, an Oat Milk Chocolate Chip cookie. “Oat milk has been the biggest trend in the entire grocery store for the last year,” says Joseph. “We created a special formula for using oat milk as the first ingredient in the cookies.” The proprietary formula uses the company’s own hand-crafted oat milk, which acts as a sweetener so the cookie can have less sugar. The plant-based, gluten-free, dairy-free, non-GMO Oat Milk Chocolate Chip cookies will launch later this year.
“It tastes like one of the most-delicious chocolate chip cookies you have ever had,” says Joseph.
Kestenbaum is exceptionally proud of the THINSTERS products the team offers to the market. “Our product is truly best in class from the taste and flavor to the texture, with the great crunchiness and real ingredients. That, to me, is the thing that really has propelled us. If we had compromised on the ingredients, we would not be where we are today, and would not have such a devoted base of consumers.”
But this journey is also about the team itself. “We’ve had our setbacks, and we’ve had great successes,” says Kestenbaum. “It’s about the people and the perseverance of our team members. Sometimes you end up spending more time with your team than you do with your family. So it’s important that you’re able to complement each other well, to work together.”
That’s How We Roll is always looking to explore other categories across category innovation, notes Kestenbaum. “We do think we have some room left in the cookie category. We are always looking to push the envelope on innovation. I would not be surprised with THINSTERS got into other snack categories in the future.”
That’s How We Roll has the ability to move quickly and get on the shelf with something new and innovative much faster than some other companies, says Joseph. “I worked at PepsiCo when I started my career. It takes years to come up with an idea and develop a formulation with all of the commercialization processes and bureaucracy that you have to get through. We’re much faster and much more nimble. We can quickly get consumers and retailers a winning product. It’s a big advantage for us.”
At a Glance
Company: That’s How We Roll / THINSTERS
Headquarters: Montclair, NJ
CEO: Sam Kestenbaum
CMO: Kevin Joseph