A kernel of inspiration sits in the heart of true entrepreneurial vision. Often, it just needs enough energy to pop and make its presence known.
Such was the case for Dustin Finkel, founder and CEO of Ka-Pop! Snacks, Boulder, CO. The brand is a model of better-for-you snacking simplicity: a supremely simplified, clean label, truly better-for-you, 100 percent ancient grain snack that the entire family can enjoy—and feel good about eating.
Ka-Pop! Snacks launched in April of 2018 with a core line of Ancient Grain Popped Chips, and the word about the brand started to spread. Then an appearance on “Shark Tank” to kick off 2020 brought Finkel’s visionary snack concept to the world, catalyzing brand growth. Most recently, Ka-Pop! Snacks added a line of Ancient Grain Puffs, and product distribution continues to expand across the U.S.—and into international markets.
In November of 2015, Finkel got caught up in the craze of salty snacks billed as “better-for-you” alternatives to traditional products. “As a personal trainer and fitness enthusiast, I was always looking for better ways to eat,” he says. “The promises of lower calories and better nutrition were compelling. Unfortunately, they all severely compromised on the taste and joy that should be associated with food.” He also consistently felt terrible after eating the products. “Slowly, but surely, I saw my weight climb and my body composition decline.”
Faced with frustration at his available snacking options, a kernel of inspiration appeared. “Yes, it’s cliché, but I thought there was a better way,” says Finkel. “As an avid fan of ancient grains due to my years following the Paleo diet, I wondered what would happen if you tried to pop them on the stove. My wife and I gave it a try. Despite coming out burnt and exceedingly small (think the leftovers from a popcorn bag), they tasted great, had incredible nutrition, and our kids loved them.”
Finkel has over 15 years of CPG leadership experience, as well as five years working in investment banking, so he had the requisite background to strategically enter into product development. After seeing some success with his kitchen experimentation, he began working with a manufacturing partner to devise a way to yield a superb popped ancient grain product. “We played with different popping capabilities until we finally came across the ability to make Popped Ancient Grain Chips,” he says. The product format was a model of simplicity: sorghum, olive or sunflower oil, and seasonings.
A key factor was rediscovering the joy of snacking. “We believe that eating is meant to be enjoyable, and that the desire to choose healthy options should be shared by the whole family,” says Finkel. “We were very purposeful in developing a brand that could bring that fun back to healthy snacking.”
Finkel sees Ka-Pop! Snacks as fulfilling a significant need in today’s snack market. “We have a uniquely positioned product meeting major macro consumer trends unlocking massive category whitespace in the approximately $400 billion global snacking market,” he says.
Finkel sees Ka-Pop! as highly unique. “There is no other 100 percent ancient grain snack on the market,” he suggests. “Ancient grains are mainstreaming fast behind gluten-free, sustainable eating, and whole-food trends.” He notes sorghum is packed full of protein, fiber, omega-3s, potassium, vitamins, and other nutrients.
Meeting a need for allergen-friendly snacking is another draw. “All of our products are top 12 allergen-free, which is pretty remarkable in the category,” says Finkel. He notes one out of 10 adults and one out of 13 children have a food allergy. “And many more are allergy ‘avoiders’ due to concerns of inflammation—or just don’t like how they feel after eating them. The allergen avoider trend is expected to continue to increase, and these consumers are willing to invest significantly more than other buyers in their food purchases.”
Ethical eating also factors into the equation. “We sit on the back of some of the most-important trends in food ethics, as we are both vegan and using an incredibly sustainable ancient grain,” says Finkel. “From a sustainability standpoint, sorghum is incredible for our farmlands and soil biodiversity.” Sorghum uses a fraction of the water that other modern grains use for growth, and it can cycle nutrients and accelerate carbon sequestration into the soil.
The product lineup
Ka-Pop! Snacks offers two product lines, Ancient Grain Popped Chips and Ancient Grain Puffs, available in 1-oz. snack-sized bags and a larger 4-oz. option.
The chips coming in five flavors: Rosemary Garlic, Dairy Free Cheddar, Salt & Vinegar, Red & Green Sriracha, and Olive Oil Sea Salt.
The new puffs line launched in March with Dairy Free Cheddar and Red & Green Sriracha flavors. “We are now expanding that line with a Cinnamon Churro flavor—our very first step into sweet, but only with 3 grams of sugar.”
Ka-Pop! Snacks approaches flavor innovation via two pathways. “We look to the biggest players in snacking and what flavors are driving their business,” says Finkel. “Then we challenge ourselves to re-create that same flavor profile while meeting our rigorous standards of vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO, nothing artificial, and allergen-free. Our dairy-free cheese profile is a perfect example of this work. It took two years for us to get to a flavor that could fool even the biggest cheese lover.”
Then the brand furthers its originality through examination of potential eating occasions for its snacks. “We follow our personal passions around flavor innovation to create something unique in the marketplace,” says Finkel. “Our Red & Green Sriracha is a perfect example of our desire for a bold, savory flavor with just the right amount of spice that could pair perfectly with our soups, salads, and sandwiches.” He notes the Red & Green Sriracha is quickly becoming a top seller.
Ka-Pop! Snacks is currently carried in Sprouts, Natural Grocers, Whole Foods Rocky Mountain, and several regional chains. “We are expanding into a few divisions of Kroger this winter, and have picked up some international business in Taiwan and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” says Finkel. The products are also available via Amazon and the brand’s website.
Bring out the Sharks
In the snack and bakery world, the “Shark Tank” reality series has proven a boon for emerging entrepreneurial brands. “The ‘Shark Tank’ experience was a year-long relationship,” says Finkel. “There were ups and downs, but in the end, it was all worth it. During the initial weeks of exploration with ‘Shark Tank,’ there are mountains of paperwork, video entries, and interviews. It’s months of getting audited until you get the green light—which, to be clear, is never guaranteed, even when you’re flown out to set. There are over 40,000 brands that apply each year, and only around 80 get on the air.”
Preparing the pitch for filming was incredibly intense, notes Finkel. “We had mere weeks to assemble a broadcast TV caliber pitch and prepare for the Q&A, all while simultaneously running our growing business. You get three weeks’ notice that you are going to air. An email I will never forget! We were informed around Christmas, which meant we had 22 days, of which 15 were work days, and four were holidays! Projects that were intended to take months, including a new website and Amazon platform, were condensed to one to two weeks.”
This opportunity was a professional milestone. “As I mentioned on the show, appearing on ‘Shark Tank’ was at the very top of my professional bucket list,” says Finkel. “It was an unbelievable opportunity for Ka-Pop! to showcase our incredible taste and benefits in a clear way to a mass audience in front of some truly remarkable people. While Ka-Pop! has a nearly perfect five-star rating, my only fear of appearing on ‘Shark Tank’ was negative feedback from the Sharks, or how editing could impact the Sharks’ positive reactions (as they only show a fraction of the conversation).”
But the experience proved fruitful. “As it turns out, my concerns were unwarranted,” says Finkel. “The Sharks loved the product, the brand, and my vision for the company. While we did not get a deal because of a valuation gap, but it was clear that they believed in the brand and our fantastic product.”
Finkel calls the “Shark Tank” experience as “our Superbowl for 2020,” catalyzing a strong sales increase. “It has been an unbelievable game-changer for us, creating a new floor in our e-commerce business and has opened up so many more consumers to our brand in retail.”
Ka-Pop! Snacks also won the 2020 Natural Products West and United Natural Foods Inc. Pitch Slams, gaining additional accolades—and exposure. “We have grown nearly 300 percent in 2020,” reports Finkel.
Positioned for growth
Over the past few years, the food industry has seen a notable shift to e-commerce—a development greatly accelerated by the current pandemic. “There has been a massive paradigm shift in shopping behavior driven by COVID-19, transforming consumer behavior in a matter of weeks,” says Finkel. “We are actively working to build an active presence in this space through improved digital marketing capabilities.”
Finkel also notes continued momentum behind plant-based and dairy-free diets. “The confluence of macro diet trends (Whole 30), ethical eating (vegan), and growing allergen-intolerant communities is fueling consumer desires to find non-dairy solutions that do not compromise on taste,” he says. “When you read our reviews on our Dairy Free Cheddar Puffs, for example, you can feel the excitement of these consumers. They have finally found a snack that brings back their favorite foods without compromising on their dietary needs—or the pure joy of snacking!”
Finkel is exceedingly proud of the loyal consumer base that has grown around Ka-Pop! Snacks. “We did a word cloud recently where we combined every review and comment we had gotten on our brand online,” he says. “The No. 1 word was ‘love.’ I am humbled to have earned that level of emotion, and that responsibility fuels me. I want that same word to be No. 1 in 10 years!”
This consumer love also extends to the larger community for the brand, and a desire to give back. “The meteoric growth of the company happened in the first quarter of 2020 behind ‘Shark Tank’ and the launch of Puffs,” says Finkel. “That simultaneously aligned with the start of COVID-19. Our success has allowed us to help out so many in our community when they needed it most. Since March, we have donated thousands of servings of our school-safe snacks to our local school district lunch program and our local food bank. Additionally, we have given thousands of dollars to the Gary Sinise Foundation for military veterans.”
Ka-Pop! Snacks is in a state of continual improvement. “We are always looking to improve our people and structure,” says Finkel. “We are pushing the existing team and external partners to grow and punch way above their weight class. We are consistently optimizing accountabilities, staffing, and processes to make our business run more efficiently and effectively.”
Finkel relates one of his favorite quotes, from Thomas Edison: “‘Vision without execution is just hallucination.’ At Ka-Pop! Snacks we live and breathe that every day.”
AT A GLANCE
Company: Ka-Pop! Snacks
Headquarters: Boulder, CO
Products: Popped chips, puffs