Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Snikiddy Snacks takes a bite of the organic snack market

Bethesda business creates healthy food for children

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J. Adam Fenster⁄The Gazette
Mary Schulman sits at her Bethesda home surrounded by products from her Snikiddy Snacks business. Snikiddy Snacks, founded by Schulman and her mother Janet Owings, makes organic children’s snacks that appeal to a growing market.
Three years ago, Mary Schulman, pregnant and tired, began to question her life.

Investment banking was her career, but by no means her passion.

After some brainstorming with her mother, Schulman, now 32, decided to start something that would not only benefit her future child, but also children around the country.

From this idea grew Snikiddy Snacks, an organic children’s snack company based in Bethesda. Started in 2005, the business has grown quickly in less than two years, with its products now lining the shelves of Whole Foods and other organic markets nationwide. ‘‘We fill a need in the market segment,” Schulman, of Bethesda, said. ‘‘There are some healthy, organic snacks, but I doubt you’d eat them.”

What sets Snikiddy apart from the field, according to Schulman, is that the products taste good. The recipes come from Schulman’s grandmother, who raised Schulman’s mother, Janet Owings, on a dairy farm in Cortland, N.Y.

‘‘We were always cutting back on sugar, using honey instead, and my father raised cows organically before it was even a term,” said Owings, who now lives in Rockville.

What came from that farm in upstate New York is a slew of snacks, from Cherry Oaties to Grilled Cheese Puffs to Chocolate Chippers. And all the products are 100 percent organic.

In recent years, the market for organic products has exploded, netting more than 15 percent growth each year, according to the Organic Trade Association based in Greenfield, Mass. In that same time, the organic snack sector has grown even faster: from 2004 to 2005, sales grew 18 percent, and earned $666 million domestically, association data shows.

‘‘The snack category is one of the areas where there are more businesses entering the market now than ever before,” said Holly Givens, public affairs advisor for the group. ‘‘I think shoppers are looking for more organics in different areas than before.”

Growth in the market has meant growth for Snikiddy as well. Since officially launching the product line in August 2006, sales have skyrocketed, and the company predicts more than $1 million in sales by the end of the year. Next year they hope to triple that.

Bethesda itself is a burgeoning organic center, with Snikiddy Snacks and the natural tea company Honest Tea calling the area home.

Since its founding in 1998, Honest Tea has seen sales grow to $25 million annually, according to CEO and co-founder Seth Goldman. Honest Tea is now the country’s best-selling natural tea, he said.

Bethesda residents have been interested in organics for years for many reasons, Goldman said.

‘‘I would say well-educated, health-conscious, eco-friendly areas, like Colorado, California, Boston and New York, have always found organics to be important,” Goldman said. ‘‘Bethesda is high in all those categories.”

One of the difficulties in marketing organic products is getting customers to make the switch from regular snack foods to organic, which are often more expensive, according to Brett Schulman, Mary’s husband and head of logistics for Snikiddy Snacks.

‘‘People in the United States spend about 9 percent of their disposable income on food, while more health conscious countries, like in Western Europe, spend 15 to 20 percent,” he said. ‘‘We have to convince people that spending the extra money on food is worth it.”

Among the benefits Snikiddy Snacks lists for its products is a lack of pesticides or herbicides, as well as low sugar content. The average Snikiddy product has two to six grams of sugar per serving, while one serving of Oreos — three cookies — contains 14 grams of sugar. In a country where obesity is a growing problem, the folks at Snikiddy — which is short for persnickety, meaning choosy — believe that parents should look for healthier products.

‘‘People have gotten used to eating cheap food,” Brett Schulman said, referring to foods with a lot of preservatives that use high-fructose corn syrup, ‘‘and we’re seeing the ramifications through things like childhood obesity. We want younger families to be more cognizant of the organic health benefits.”

The next step for the female-owned business is expansion into larger supermarkets, like Giant.

‘‘There are a lot of people shopping at mainstream grocery stores that are interested in organics, but they just aren’t on the shelves there yet,” Mary Schulman said. ‘‘As conventional grocers grow their [organic] sections, we want to be there.”