CONGERS, N.Y. — Scott Semel claims he created a new food category two years ago with the introduction of barkTHINS. Billed as “snacking chocolate,” the brand features six varieties of dark chocolate slivers studded with simple ingredients, such as dried blueberries, toasted coconut chips, pretzel pieces and roasted almonds.
Containing no artificial colors or flavors, barkTHINS are Non-GMO Project Verified, Fair Trade Certified and certified kosher. The flagship line is packaged in resealable pouches with varieties that range from pumpkin seed to peppermint to blueberry quinoa crunch. The products are available in Whole Foods Market, Target, Safeway, Wegmans, Costco and other national retailers. Single-serving bags and seasonal flavors are slated to debut at select locations this year.
“We’ve put together a very aggressive sales plan for 2015 that represents a very significant increase over 2014, and we’ve already surpassed our goal for the year,” Mr. Semel said. “We are way ahead of our plan, and we’re pretty gratified that the response has been so amazing.”
In an interview with Food Business News, Mr. Semel shared the story behind the brand’s explosive growth and his thoughts on the future of the confectionery category.
Food Business News: How was this concept developed?
Scott Semel: I had a private label business for many years, and one of the mandates of the business was to develop product. Bark historically has been a seasonal item, as a peppermint bark in a tin or gift box during the holidays. I started thinking through how to commercialize bark because it was a product that had not been commercialized, so we worked pretty hard on that and getting it right for a long period of time before showing it to respective customers.
How did you know the product could be successfully extended year-round?
Mr. Semel: It was differentiated from the beginning. It was always met with positive response at holiday, and intuitively, I said, if it sells well at holiday, and if it didn’t have specific holiday ingredients, why couldn’t it be an everyday snack? The product tastes great. It has historically been seasonal. What do we need to do to make it an everyday go-to snack?
How did you decide to position this product as a better-for-you option in the confectionery category?
Mr. Semel: When we did it, it was more about what I would buy myself. I was my test audience. Quite simply, indulgent snacking with a clean label is what I wanted.
The idea behind thins was that bark historically has been very thick, and we just wanted to make it more snackable and approachable. If you can break it and eat as much or as little as you want, that is a snackable element.
Conceptually, it’s simple to explain and understand. I do think we were early on in thinking of chocolate as a snack, and we definitely have seen some people playing off the thin aspect, including Oreo. I think it’s a testament to us, and I think it’s creating some awareness around what we’re doing.
What are the challenges of developing a product with a clean label?
Mr. Semel: The first mandate was we wanted the chocolate to be clean, fair trade and non-G.M.O., and having been in the business, we had a fair amount of relationships in that genre. We worked really hard with a particular chocolate supplier to get the right blend specifically for us.
On top of that, we have a team of people here who are well-versed in sourcing clean ingredients.
The confectionery category and the snack category for a long time have been a lot of mainstream guys selling mainstream stuff and a lot of artisan people selling high-end things at a very high price point, but there haven’t been a ton of people who are firmly planted in the middle, who can deliver high quality ingredients and a great tasting product and make it commercially viable. That was also one of the things we wanted to do from the very beginning. We wanted the ingredients to be great, we wanted to the product to taste great, but we didn’t want it to be exclusive.
How did you develop the flavor profiles for your core range?
Mr. Semel: Initially, the thought process was people are going to buy what they know and understand. For the first four we introduced, we wanted to keep it as simple as we possibly could. We wanted to put products on the market that people could understand. So, it was almonds, pretzel, mint and peanut to start. Once we got into it, we saw that almond and pretzel distanced themselves from other two. And then we wanted to work toward finding a range that met our product qualifications, that it needs to be simple and approachable, but at the same time, if we can have inclusions that resonate with people like coconut almond or blueberry quinoa, and we can manufacture it in an effective way, let’s go about doing that.
Going forward, if we can come up with products that speak to what people like and are still differentiated, that’s certainly a direction we will go. This product lends itself to innovation and inclusions, so you can go in a lot of different directions, which is great because the platform product is based upon the ability to innovate.
Are there other types of product lines or formats you can expand into?
Mr. Semel: Right now the focus is what’s on our plate. We have to execute against our plan.
Having said that, we do have thought processes into what the future can look like, and there’s a ton of different platforms and directions we can go that are consistent with the brand but elevated in a way that further differentiates it. There are definitely things in the innovation pipeline that are interesting and compelling, but we’re still new and we have to be focused and direct in giving people what they want.
Where do you see the confectionery category headed?
Mr. Semel: I think the trends are going toward where we’re taking it, which is indulgent and clean. You read about what KitKat, which is as mainstream as it gets, wants to do by 2018, to have transparent ingredients and clean label. The category itself is a $30 billion category and continues to grow every year. There’s room for lots of people.I think we have been differentiated from the standpoint that we’re marketing it as snacking chocolate, so there’s an element of category creation. So we want to be a little bit ahead of it, but I think that the category is only going to grow, and hopefully we’re at the forefront of it.