Snak King keeps eye on entrepreneurial culture

by Sarah Hubbart and Kerry Lynch
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Snak King produces a diverse array of snacks for its brands, including Granny Goose, El Sabroso, Jensen’s Orchard and The Whole Earth.

At just 21 years of age, Barry Levin took a leap of faith when he assumed leadership of a small snack company with two employees and one product: pork rinds. This was more than 35 years ago, and today that company has grown both in size and product offerings to be among the largest snack manufacturers in the United States.

Now Snak King, City of Industry, Calif., employs about 1,000 people at multiple warehouses and two manufacturing locations. It produces a diverse array of snacks under private label and for its brands, including Granny Goose, El Sabroso, Jensen’s Orchard and The Whole Earth. The products range from traditional potato chips and cheese puffs to pork cracklins, organic kettle corn and vegetable chips. Products may be found across the country in grocery stores, local markets and vending machines, as well as on airlines.

Snak King is no stranger to the Snack Food Association (S.F.A.). Mr. Levin, now chairman and chief executive officer of Snak King, was chairman of the S.F.A. in 2001, and Cindy Kuester, director of sales, currently serves on the board of directors. By taking advantage of the association’s educational opportunities and networking events, generations of Snak King leaders have not just made industry contacts but have also made longtime friends.

Joe Papiri, v.p. of sales and marketing at Snak King

“Snak King is a long-term supporter of S.F.A.,” said Joe Papiri, vice-president of sales and marketing at Snak King. “Both Ron Jones, president and c.o.o. of Snak King, and myself, have served on the board of directors.”

The last decade has brought challenge and opportunity for the company. In 2004, a large storm caused the roof to collapse, destroying its facility in City of Industry. Snak King saw the problem as a new opportunity and re-built the facility from the ground up. The remodeled plant is 177,000 square feet — which doubled production capacity — and contains the largest single oven tortilla chip line in the snack industry today. In 2012, Snak King made a jump across the country and purchased the C.J. Venture Co., located in Chicago, which gave the company an even larger footprint in the snack industry.

“With two plant locations in California and Chicago, we were able to fully establish ourselves as a national business,” Mr. Papiri said. “We gained the geographic advantage of being closer to customers in the east and added more production space.”

Mr. Papiri has been with Snak King for 25 years and heads up the sales and marketing teams. He has been involved with the launch of many new products, such as the original ‘Guacachip,’ which is part of Snak King’s El Sabroso product line. The green tortilla chip is infused with guacamole spices and has been a mainstay of the company for 15 years.

Mr. Papiri has been involved with the launch of many new products, such as the original ‘Guacachip.'

When asked if he has a favorite product, Mr. Papiri said, “I have a lot of favorites. We have a new tortilla chip that I’m getting rather attached to … it’s a little bit heavier and more of a restaurant-style chip.”

Though Mr. Papiri may have a favorite product now, continuous change through new product development is important to Snak King. He knows that is one of the keys to the company’s success.

“We stay current through our innovative concepts and truly see ourselves as a niche manufacturer,” Mr. Papiri said. “We strive to offer products for that niche market with a value-add.”

One new project that is a prime example of how Snak King navigates emerging snack markets is the company’s novel approach to incorporating peanuts and peanut butter into specialty products. This idea isn’t necessarily a new category or concept for snacking but has been seen mostly in Europe. “Nut Butter Puffs” in Snak King’s Nut-ibles line has peanut butter baked into the product, making its weight 50% peanut butter. It is a similar concept to another favorite snack of Mr. Papiri’s — Almond Puffs — which are both from The Whole Earth brand.

“It is relatively new idea,” Mr. Papiri said. “We wanted to take that European concept and make it work in the U.S. where high-protein snacks are in vogue.”

One of Snak King’s hallmarks is its ability to be flexible, adapt to changes in the marketplace and respond to new challenges. Current trends in the industry, such as retailer and manufacturer consolidation, can be difficult to navigate, but Mr. Papiri noted that how companies respond to such challenges is key.

“The question for us as Snak King is, ‘How do we stay nimble and flexible to keep addressing these changes?’” Mr. Papiri said. “We do not want to lose the entrepreneurial culture that started us.”
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