The creator of Nots!, Rob Fuglie, had a desire for something to eat on the go. And it had to be safe for his son who has food allergies. With those two main “ingredients” in mind, he went to his kitchen cupboards to create a marketable product.
Production began in late 2011 with a flurry of word-of-mouth and media coverage. Nots! are nearly a nut, but it’s not, as the packaging claims. They are bite-size snacks that mix sunflower seeds with a variety of sugars to form a mildly sweet concoction with the “snackability” of a larger-sized morsel.
Nots!, produced in Fergus Falls, Minn., was designed for snackers who like to pop something into their mouth and get a crunch. Fuglie liked to eat sunflower seeds, but it was a lot of work and not enough substance. Nots! removed the work and left the enjoyment.
An added benefit to consumers is the production dedicated to allergen sensitivity. The ingredients list is free of the “Big 8” allergens and is produced in a facility that does not process peanuts or tree nuts.
Early on in the process, Fuglie teamed up with the Fergus Falls economic development people, which had a big impact on the birth of the product. “I was working on a different start-up and was introduced to Harold Stanislawski, director of the Fergus Falls Economic Improvement Commission,” Fuglie explains. “He and I got along well, and through our conversation he presented an available asset he was considering using as a food entrepreneur incubator or contract manufacturing space.”
At that point, Nots! did not exist. Fuglie was thinking of ways that facility could differentiate in order to maximize its value — and focused on allergen sensitive co-manufacturing. A few days later, he had the idea for Nots!
“The most valuable question in this process was from Harold the first day we met when he asked, ‘What would you do with a commercial kitchen?’ ” Fuglie says. “Not certain how many companies start with the facility, then create the product, but it might be the only reason Nots! exists today.”
Fuglie recently shared some insights about the unique product.
— Sonia Mullally
How did the idea for Nots! begin?
I had been working on business strategies for a contract food manufacturing model involving food allergies. My son has food allergies, including peanuts, so I was very familiar with the issues and existing product alternatives. One day in my kitchen, I was snacking on sunflower kernels and wanted to eat them more like M & M’s: grab a handful, walk through the house, and pop a few in my mouth.
How did it evolve from idea to product in package?
I made the first prototypes with five things from my kitchen cupboards. I received formulation assistance from the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute in Crookston, Minn. Once we had a consistent formula and process, I began working on production capability, packaging samples, logo design, etc. The process of going from “recipe” to mass market product is an amazing learning experience.
Did you do a lot of “trial and error” coming up with a good taste blend? Who did you use as a test audience for taste sampling as you formulated the product?
There have been a lot of starts and restarts along the way. I used anyone and everyone willing to give Nots! a try. I also consulted with a couple of families we know who deal with nut allergies. I experimented with flavors very early. I set goals for product launch. I knew the product would improve over time, but it was good. My guess was people would provide better feedback if they were being asked to pay for it. A lot of people liked it, and the product has continued to improve.
Can you describe the flavor? Are there other flavors in the works?
Nots! tastes mostly like sunflower. They have a slightly roasted nut flavor and are a little sweet, but not sugary. Flavors have been well received. We just launched a new flavor — spiced pepper blend — which became available on store shelves and for online orders on October 15.
Explain the production process in detail. Please start with the seed selection (where does the seed come from, how much is used in production, etc.) all the way to sealing the package.
I currently source bakery kernel seeds from dealers in the Red River Valley (eastern North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota). The dealers in this area are terrific in understanding the allergen issues and provide consistently high-quality products. The kernels are ground to aid extrusion, so size and shape are not as critical for the finished product. Sunflower is greater than two-thirds of the product weight.
The process is fairly straight forward: grind, mix, extrude, kill step, cool, cut, package. We use a rice paper zip seal poly pouch with a banded heat seal. This gives us a quality product in a package that assists with brand and market development.
Describe some of the challenges of breaking into a crowded marketplace of snack foods.
The challenge, generally, is people know what they know. They don’t know Nots! Everything about the product is different: shape, color, flavor. It’s a different way of eating sunflower than what they know. Not surprisingly, sampling is a necessary requirement. The folks with food allergies/intolerances/sensitivities lower the barrier of entry. They are looking for alternative products that can be used in multiple ways. For some with gluten challenges, Nots! becomes a salad topping to replace croutons. For peanut allergic, Nots! is put into trail mix, etc.
Can you clarify the allergen free component of Nots!?
From an ingredients basis, the product is “Top 8” allergen free: no peanut, tree nut, soy, gluten, dairy, egg, fish or shell fish ingredients. I was surprised to learn how many people have digestive issues with corn, so I replaced corn syrup with cane syrup.
That being said, we are very careful to not claim peanut, tree nut or allergen free. The facility we currently manufacture in does not use peanuts or tree nuts in food preparation, but we do not claim peanut, tree nut or any allergen free.
Additionally, as Nots! has grown and the facility is in greater demand by others, the allergen statements on the package and website are updated regularly. My goal is to be in a dedicated facility, at some point, so we can give food allergy sufferers the greatest confidence available by becoming certified with appropriate food allergy certifying agencies and be deemed “Top 8” allergen free.
How would you characterize product demand so far? Have there been some challenges in stocking the product and distribution?
Product demand seems to spike and plateau. Different elements affect this. When the change was made from corn syrup to cane syrup, there was an increase in sales. When the UPC was added, we got our first distributor. Each step forward seems to pull the whole business forward a little bit.
For the most part, it’s a bit like walking down a hill: sometimes you hit a steeper spot and go faster for a little bit; sometimes a flat spot and go slower for a little bit — but you’re moving forward the whole time. The big jumps present the largest challenges. For example, it might take a couple months after negotiating a vendor agreement to get on the shelf.
Where is your product available?
The product is available in specialty grocery stores and food Co-ops in Minnesota. Nots! is also available by ordering from Amazon.com and at Akin’s Natural Foods in Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas; and Chamberlain’s Natural Foods in Florida. Product can also be ordered through our website at www.nots-snacks.com.
How is the product sold (size of the package and price)?
The product is sold in 4 oz bags. Suggested retail is $3.98. Do a web search for Nots! Roasted Sunflower Snacks for all the ways to connect with us.
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