MARION, OHIO — There are trend watchers, and there are trendsetters. Then there are the game changers. After more than 80 years in business, Wyandot Snacks has honed its skills at all three.

Who would have guessed that a family-owned company in rural Marion was once one of the largest exporters of raw popcorn? That was, at one point in history, the distinction that Wyandot Snacks hung its hat on. But for this company — and the Brown family, which founded and still owns Wyandot — success does not end with a crowning achievement. It’s only the beginning.

Evolving from raw exporter to cooked popcorn producer to snack manufacturer requires something special. It takes the grit, determination and entrepreneurial ­spirit inherent in a family business’ DNA.

Then what comes next?

That was the task for Rob Sarlls when he took his post as president and chief executive officer of Wyandot Snacks in late 2015.

“Wyandot had all the elements of a fantastic business,” said Mr. Sarlls, a plant-based snack industry veteran whose experience spans decades in the food industry. “It’s always had a reputation of being the smart people in the snack food space. They’re the brainpower, and the focus on technical expertise has always been well-known and respected.”

The other quality Wyandot is known for is its “can-do attitude,” as Mr. Sarlls described it.

“It was always, ‘Go to the ends of the earth to make the customer happy, get the job done and get it done right,’” he recalled.

That ethos led Wyandot on a path to developing packaged goods and corn-based chips, and it didn’t stop there.

“Like every multi-generational family business, (the Brown family) was very opportunistic,” Mr. Sarlls said. “Someone would knock on their door and ask, ‘Can you make this?’ and the answer would always be yes. They built a beautiful business this way.”

But as Wyandot’s business grew, so did the snack industry. And they’ve both evolved, too. When Mr. Sarlls joined the company, he spearheaded a four-month strategic initiative that resulted in the decision to focus mainly on co-manufacturing better-for-you — also known as BFY — snacks.

“We really narrowed it down perfectly,” he said. “We had all the capabilities in-house, but this crystallized and turbocharged it.”

Based on its innovation expertise and technological capabilities, Wyandot’s new emphasis now drives most every aspect of the company.

“At one point, private label production was the supermajority of our production, but working with brands is very rewarding on every ­level,” Mr. Sarlls said. “It’s now the supermajority.”

The innovators’ innovator

Mr. Sarlls was drawn to Wyandot for several reasons, not the least of which was the company’s propensity to fearlessly go after new opportunities that led its transformation so far. To him, that was lightning in a bottle. All it needed was a bit of focus.

With contract manufacturing better-for-you snacks comprising the supermajority of the business, that focus is now laser-sharp, thanks to Wyandot’s product development expertise.

“The brands are the ones typically doing most of the innovation,” Mr. Sarlls observed.

With his marketing background, he was quick to point out that brands have the resources to tap into social media and word-of-mouth campaigns to engage social influencers.

“Those early adopters are looking for exciting brands with an essence that resonates with them,” he said. “That’s why the groundbreaking innovators are typically the brands, and that’s who we’ve been working with more. They’re the ones changing the landscape and the whole feel of what snacking is all about.”

Wyandot operates on the formula of food ­consumption growing at population growth, and snack consumption expands at 2- to 4-times food consumption, with better-for-you snacking growing 2- to 4-times snack volume.

“Based on this rule of thumb, we wanted to focus on the people bringing the best new ideas to market,” Mr. Sarlls said.

And that’s another differentiator: Wyandot’s alignment with emerging brands. With the innovation expertise that comes with a team of nearly a dozen food scientists and R.&D. experts, paired with its highly developed extrusion technology, Wyandot has the chops working with innovators, entrepreneurs and start-ups along with the big brands.

“We have become the first call,” Mr. Sarlls said. “We’re not one of many; we are the first.”

For every current or potential customer knocking on the door, Wyandot has one strict requirement: The value proposition must be authentic.

“It has to ring true to the brand essence they’re trying to deliver, and it has to be a product that tastes good,” Mr. Sarlls insisted. “We make good things taste great. That’s easier said than done, and what I’m really proud of is that our team can make snacks that contain fun, unique ingredients and great nutritional attributes.”

Shifting the paradigm

In Marion — and the surrounding Wyandot county — Wyandot Snacks is a pillar, not only with its reputation as an employer of choice but also for its commitment to the community through 40 different charities and various sustainability initiatives.

But Wyandot is known for its products, too. And for many people in Marion, old habits die hard. Mr. Sarlls recalled a time when he had attended a community golf event wearing a ball cap from a nut company where he had previously worked.

“Someone asked me, ‘Why is the president of Popped Right (that’s one of our older corporate names) wearing a Fisher Nut hat?’” he recalled. “Fisher doesn’t compete with Wyandot, but our community still often thinks of us as Wyandot Popcorn.”

The truth is, Wyandot still makes popcorn, but it’s now only a small portion of the business.

“We’ve now become primarily an expert extrusion company,” Mr. Sarlls said. “I’m very proud of our private label business, but when I hear people refer to us as a private label manufacturer, I remind them that we are a contract manufacturer that also does some private label.”

Strategic business decisions are rarely the easy ones, but Wyandot has learned that these are the choices that drive a business forward; they’re the game changers.

One example Mr. Sarlls recalled was a private label cheese crunchy that Wyandot used to produce.

“We didn’t make very much of it, so the line sat unutilized much of the time; we may have run a couple shifts a week,” he said.

But in accordance with the strategic plan, everything coming through the door needs a better-for-you angle to it.

“That makes our decisions easier in terms of what new business to bring in and let go, and what equipment to buy or retire,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of shifting of our capabilities to focus on the best opportunities.”

Eventually, the company replaced its cheese crunchy line with a Clextral twin-screw extruder to produce toddler and organic pulse snacks.

“Now that line is busy 80% to 90% of the time,” he said.

Wyandot’s strategy streamlines the business and maintains efficiency; it also impacts how the operation handles its ingredients and raw materials.

“There are so many different variations we’re running that it doesn’t really allow us to go to a bulk system,” Mr. Sarlls said. “When we did a lot of private label, we had one formula that we could say, ‘Take it or leave it.’ When you’re in contract manufacturing, each customer has its own preferred ingredients.”

Properly managing these customer complexities is one key to success, which is why it was so important that Wyandot narrow down the customer list to fit a specific profile.

“Having a limited number of customers means we can pay attention to them all, and we can give each of them as much focused attention as possible,” he noted.

Changing the landscape

Wyandot’s success has always come from its work ethic and ability to identify and adapt to emerging market trends. Today, the company uses that foresight to empower the industry.

With a heavy emphasis on better-for-you snacks, Wyandot is poised to educate the industry through its involvement with SNAC International, for which Mr. Sarlls is second vice-chairman.

“Over the past several years, we’ve played the part of torch bearer, the rally-­crier to say, ‘BFY is here. It’s real, and consumers demand it,’” he said. “As an industry, we need to address it. We all need this. We’re not just making corn chips or potato chips and going to sleep. The world is changing, and we’ve got to change with it.”

This article is an excerpt from the March 2019 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Wyandot Snacks, click here.