Above: Smart Alex chips come in three flavors: Mucho Nacho Cheese, Rockin’ Ranch and Mucho Taco.
If you’re a bare bones start-up, how do you create a product and make it stand out in a local market already crowded with food entrepreneurs? There are ways, say the brains behind SMART ALEX, NUTSHELL and SHIRLEY DELICIOUS CONFECTIONS, three emerging Stamford-based companies.
“We just put our heads down and keep going,” says Will D’Agostino, creator of Nutshell snack bars. Bruce and Maria Miller, makers of Smart Alex tortilla chips, rely on extensive research, honed during careers in marketing and food product development. For Shirley Viscarello of Shirley Delicious, it is about embracing the development of a brand as a learning opportunity for her and her daughters, with whom she shares the business.
The challenges, rewarding as it may be to overcome them, are an everyday occurrence. And though D’Agostino, the Millers and the Viscarellos are well into their second acts, we wanted to know what prompted them to change gears, and learn how they got their businesses up and running.
The Miller family draws from experience to develop and market Smart Alex, a kid-approved tortilla chip that mom and dad are happy to endorse
As former product developers and marketers for the biggest names in the snack food aisles, Kraft and Kellogg’s among them, Bruce and Maria Miller noticed an opportunity. Products in the better-for-you (BFY) aisles didn’t taste that great and weren’t much fun for the kids for whom these products are intended.
So they decided to create their own: tortilla chips that appeal to mom and dad (no MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated fats or GMOs) and to their children (no fancy flavors or boring, nature-evoking names). The chips would be brightly packaged with a fun name and logo. Most important, the chips had to pack the flavor of the most popular brands into a low-fat, multigrain, naturally seasoned crunch.
To that end, the Millers found a company that flash-popped tortilla chips (reducing the fat by 40 percent). They used non-GMO corn and brown rice, tweaking the recipe until the chip flavor was just right. Then came the hard part—developing toppings with enough zing to please kids. They came up with three: Mucho Nacho Cheese, Rockin’ Ranch and Totally Taco, using real cheese and natural flavors. “A lot of work went into that,” Bruce Miller says.
The Millers, and of great import, their kids and their friends, tasted each sample blend. “We went through several rounds before we got to the ones that were truly kid-approved,” he says. “The kid part was integral, keeping us honest, getting us to the final flavor.”
Smart Alex is a family enterprise. Maria, who works in consumer research, manages the company’s social media. On weekends, she and daughter Juliana head to one grocery store to sample, while Bruce hits another store. “It’s our favorite thing to do,” he says. “People love the product and that we’re local.” One happy accident is their expanding consumer base includes people looking for lower sodium or “happy that a serving’s only four points in Weight Watchers.”
After three years of development, Smart Alex launched their first run a year ago. Palmer’s in Darien was their first customer; Walter Stewart’s in New Canaan followed. Smart Alex is now in twenty-five locations, including eleven ShopRites in Fairfield County…and coming soon to a mar-ket near you.
A former analyst taps into an emerging market to create nutshell, nutritious snack bars for the health-conscious consumer
As a devoted hiker, skier and camper, Will D’Agostino tried just about every snack bar out there. Trouble was he craved something he could not find—bars that had lots of flavor; were made with nutritious, organic fruits, grains and nuts; and weren’t overly sweet but still had a soft, chewy texture. Even harder to find were gluten-free and vegan options.
He knew the clients were there for these healthy snacks, says the former math and economics major, who started Nutshell to feed that vacuum in the market after a less-than-satisfying job selling mutual funds. “Consumers are putting more of their disposable income into their bodies,” he says, to explain his reasoning for starting the business. “Food is integrated with health.”
Farmers markets were his first outlets. Beginning May 2016, he did everything himself, rising early to bake the bars then traveling to farmers markets in Stamford, New Canaan, Rowayton, Wilton and Westchester County. Today the bars are available in twenty-five locations in Connecticut and New York. “We’re doing well in Manhattan, with café accounts in seven locations,” he says.
The health quotient of Nutshell bars is significant. They have a base of puffed quinoa, delivering protein and a light crunch. Brown rice syrup is “as good as you can get in sweeteners,” D’Agostino says, noting that many bars use a date base, which despite the “no sugar” label, has a higher rate of sugar per gram. Sea salt enhances the flavors.
Among the options offered is Big Fig, studded with almonds, cashews, walnuts and figs. Other popular flavors include Chocolate Cranberry, Peanut Butter Banana, Turmeric Mango (with Brazil nuts and sesame seeds) and Java Bar (his favorite), with pecans, hazelnuts, cinnamon and coffee beans.
D’Agostino makes the bars in a professional kitchen in Glenbrook, which he splits with Nutty Bunny, the vegan ice cream maker. He’s also been raising investment money informally through family and friends; consults daily with his father, a finance executive; and has hired a cook and four new employees. All while developing new products and exploring outlets where people who live active, healthy lifestyles gather. “There are so many options,” he says.
From nurse to confectioner—local woman turns her popular hostess gifts into an opportunity for the family
When Shirley Viscarello gifted her confections, grateful recipients always said, “You should sell these!” But between raising two daughters, Sophia and Ava, and working as an obstetrics nurse in her husband’s practice, she didn’t have time. The idea wouldn’t go away, however, and after a couple years of experimenting, she developed English toffee and Cejo’s (milk chocolate and pretzel) confection recipes. “I started to think the girls were old enough and we could try to start a business together.”
With help from the Women’s Business Development Council (WBDC), Viscarello learned about licensing, how to write a business plan and calculate costs and profit margins. After taking a food safety course, she began looking for a commercial kitchen, soon working out a deal to cook in Stamford Museum & Nature Center’s kitchen. (Bonus: It’s not far from home). She recently invested in a tempering machine to keep the chocolate stable at room temperature. And more doors opened as she connected with “kind and generous” people at the Fairfield County Food and Beverage Forum (see below).
Shirley Delicious launched in June at Back Forty in Old Greenwich and Neat in Darien, with plans to find new outlets. Viscarello sees her product growing as favors for events (weddings, holidays, graduations and more), for which the packaging can be personalized.
“We’ve grown as a mother-daughter group,” Viscarello says, “My daughters are actively involved, learning about life skills and income.” As for the future, Viscarello is going to see where the business takes her, “whether it’s a small business the girls and I will learn from or something that becomes bigger and bigger.”
Local entrepreneurs gather regularly to share intel and support each other
in their efforts to grow their businesses
When the farmers markets closed in the fall of 2016, just after Will D’Agostino’s first season selling Nutshell bars, he felt isolated. The feeling prompted him to reach out to other local food and drink producers he’d met at the markets and suggest they get together to talk about their businesses and share intel on how to make their start-ups thrive in a competitive marketplace. The concept took off, and the networking group has quickly grown from six to twenty businesses.
At each meeting, three businesses are highlighted. Entrepreneurs share samples, talk about their opportunities and answer questions about the challenges. “You find out that other people are experiencing the same thing,” says D’Agostino. “We build each other up.”
Lawyers and marketing professionals have also given presentations to the group, which includes Shirley Delicious and Smart Alex. “You make all these connections, and one door after another opens,” says Shirley Viscarello. “When you put yourself out there, positive interactions snowball,”
WORD FOR WORD
Trials—and triumphs—of starting a foodie business from scratch and keeping it afloat
“Large companies buy raw materials in bulk at a much lower rate. The margins are lower for a small business.”
“Sampling in stores. You get that instantaneous consumer feedback. It’s really wonderful.”
“Cash flow. You can be well-versed in the idea but you have to put out thousands of dollars [for] products and packaging, and you have to cover your employees until the clients pay.”
“Starting a new company and creating a team is so exciting.”
“Learning the steps I needed to [understand] licensing. There’s no one checklist.”
“Going to the kitchen and cooking with my Mom. It’s nice to have that time. My Mom’s an incredible example.”
All photographs are contributed.