Cricket and Brian Allen are partners at work and at home. Having started a business together, Bot Beverages, selling a flavored water for children, they repositioned it after the 2008 economic nosedive, eventually closing it to start their latest venture, the Perfect Snaque, a year and a half ago. And they have just begun to launch Drinkwater, a flavor pouch for drinking water.
The Perfect Snaque grew out of the same conviction that propelled Bot — that food should be healthy. When the couple’s twin girls, Emily and Lyla, had reached the juice-drinking stage, they wanted to find something for the kids to drink. “We looked at juice boxes and were appalled at the sugar in them,” Brian says.
The solution came to them while they were sitting on the beach on Labor Day weekend. Trying to keep their daughters hydrated with sticky juice boxes, they had the idea for Bot, a flavored water for kids with about a quarter of the sugar in a typical juice box of the same size.
It was Cricket’s efforts to produce a healthy snack, for herself, in her own kitchen, that eventually became an array of products based on sprouted green lentils. “I was already making certain variations of the product you see on the market today for myself at home,” she says. “I like to get creative with how can you play with these ingredients in a different way so that they remain viable, intrinsically healthy, and consumable and taste good.”
She was fiddling with a snack product at home because she did not want to eat nutrition bars. “I understand nutrition bars, but I didn’t want to have a whole bunch of glued-together ingredients that just made it convenient for me,” she says. “These nut bars are just candy bars — they are so high in sugar and have a lot of processed ingredients that go into them to put them into a bar-shaped format.”
As the Allens explored the whole and natural foods arena, they were looking at ingredients that could be enjoyed whole, not processed into a flour derivative, and that were tasty when blended with other complementary ingredients. Puttering around at home, Cricket created four product lines based on the same ingredient — crunchy lentils; seasoned, sprouted lentils; skinny trail mix; and dark-chocolate-covered apple. Each product features whole, loose ingredients. “They are not all glued together, chunks of granola that have been sugar coated,” Cricket says. “All the ingredients are loose, like trail mix or muesli.
“We were focusing on a core ingredient that delivers an intrinsically good form of protein, is lean, fills you up, has phenomenal fiber, and has great texture, and is very crunchy the way we are using it,” Cricket says.
The crunch line, which people can eat as is, put in yogurt or shakes, or heat as a cereal, uses sprouted lentils, quinoa, and coconut in three flavors. The seasoned, sprouted lentil line, available in sea salt and vinegar, honey mustard, honey barbecue, and cinnamon and sugar, Cricket says, was their answer to the empty calories and/or excess calories and fat that are derived from a lot of the crunchy type of snacks — potato chips, pretzels, and pita chips. “People put the honey mustard seasoned lentils in their mouths and their jaw drops, and say this is absolutely amazing,” she says.
The Allens’ Skinny Trail Mix comes in berry and original flavors. “Instead of using nuts as a base, we use our sprouted lentils as a base, which makes it 67 to 75 percent less fat than nut-based trail mix,” she says. Granting that nuts are a great healthy alternative, she notes that climbing the mountains that would burn the nut calories does not happen on a daily basis. “We are trying to give people a leaner alternative but without sacrificing protein, fiber, and iron.”
The apples covered with dark chocolate are part of the two trail mix products, but people loved them so much that the Allens decided to package the product, which uses natural, dark Swiss chocolate, on its own.
When the Allens got started with the Perfect Snaque, they already had experience, connections, and some knowledge about how to take a product to market. But this time they decided they wanted to own the manufacturing process, rather than outsource it as they had with Bot. They did this not only to gain control of quality, inventory, and capital, but to enable them to tinker with the product over a long enough period to refine it as they liked.
When they first came out with Bot, Brian says he had supported finding a copacker, whereas Cricket felt they needed to do the manufacturing themselves, which they are now doing with the Perfect Snaque. Copackers can require minimums of as much as 5,000 pounds of each flavor. “If we had done that when we were still testing, we would never have been able to tweak, change, develop, and fine-tune the product because we would have had all of that finished product,” Brian says.
By doing things on their own, they were able to have their Snaque products in 20 stores before finalizing the packaging, because stores will often accept new products in artisan-type, stock bags, with labels pasted on. “When you go to buy printed packaging, you may have to order 20,000 of each flavor,” Brian says. “If you’re wrong about messaging, bag size, the ingredients, you have to throw out all that packaging.”
With the Perfect Snaque, they were able to spend a year developing and tweaking the product. When Whole Foods granted Mid-Atlantic approval for eight flavors in March, they were able to order stock bags and stickers, and the product went on the shelf in July. “For more mainstream groceries, you need a more finished, polished package,” Brian says.
Brian notes that being the manufacturer is also great for cash flow. “We can maintain three weeks of inventory so we are not tying up a ton of cash in finished goods.” It also enables them to pivot quickly and make changes, even if they are small, for example, changing the message on the front, calling out the protein or fiber content of the product, or changing wording.
One thing they learned during demo-ing and sampling the product in stores was that four out of five people were saying, “You can just eat them?” In response they simply added the words “ready-to-eat” to their packaging.
The manufacturing takes place at 1800 East State Street in Hamilton, where they recently doubled their space to 10,000 square feet (becoming neighbors with Bai Brands). They have between four and eight employees, with part-timers coming in to help with big production runs.
With the Perfect Snaque, the Allens are following a more regional approach, focusing on key points of distribution, placing the product with leading retailers in particular, “those that will embrace a product in its early stages and recognize the innovative qualities of a product,” like Whole Foods, Cricket says, noting that ready-to-eat sprouted lentils is not yet a proven category.
The Allens had learned from Bot, which went national practically overnight, to focus more narrowly in the beginning. “It was very difficult to make changes when your product is in a ton of retail points of distribution,” Cricket says. “It is hard to say to a buyer, Our product is not going to be a kids’ beverage anymore.”
The Perfect Snaque is currently in Kings and Shoprite in northern and central New Jersey and Westchester; in Whole Foods in the Mid-Atlantic and South; and the brand has appeared on QVC once in March, when it sold about $27,000 worth of products in eight minutes and did well enough to be invited back in January. “The goal is to do it once or twice a quarter,” Brian says, “and as we grow and grow our grocery distribution, it is not only a great selling outlet, but is a great marketing outlet because it is reaching so many people.
The Perfect Snaque is also available on Amazon.com and Luckyvitamin.com; is going into 100 GNC stores in the New York metro area starting this month; and it is in Balducci’s, Whole Earth, and Olives, and lots of natural food stores and cafes. They will also be going into Heinen’s in Ohio.
This year the Allens will be expanding up and down the East Coast as well as going into some key markets on the West Coast. “We are focusing on retail channels that are relevant for our product and help elevate awareness of our line,” Cricket says. “We are looking for the right type of retail partners, with demographics that sync up to our consumers.”
From a taste standpoint, they have found the product to be relevant to a mass market, Cricket says, noting that the differing customer demographics of Whole Foods and Shoprite both liked the product. But strategically they are starting off with retailers where they know the product will move. “We don’t want to go somewhere too early,” she says.
One advantage of the Perfect Snaque in grocery stores is its flexible positioning. “It is in either the nut aisle, or there is a new section that retailers are trying to build out, called ‘alternative snacks’ or ‘miscellaneous snacks,’” Brian says. There the Perfect Snaque would sit among products like kale chips, goji berries, and dried fruit. In Whole Foods, it is right next to the bulk section. “The nice thing about our products is that they are so versatile and not pegged to one section of the store,” Brian says. If retailers tell them their shelves are too full, they can suggest putting their lentil product with produce or in the salad dressing section; or the crunch line can go with the granolas.
The Allens have also been developing a new beverage product, Drinkwater. Leery of using so much plastic, as they had done with Bot, the Allens took a year and half and developed a botanical pouch, like a teabag in a biodegradable package. “You can drop this in your reusable water bottle or glass of water, and it will infuse the water with flavor: blackberry, passion fruit, coconut, and mint,” Brian says. The pouches are cold-water activated, with a single pouch able to flavor a half gallon of water.
Drinkwater also works in reusable water bottles. “You drop a pouch in a water bottle in the morning and can keep refilling it throughout the day,” he says. The pouches come five to a bag, with a suggested retail pricce of $3.99. Per ounce Drinkwater is on par with Mio by Kraft, a product that uses drops to flavor water.
Since Mio, Coke has added Dasani Drops, and Pepsi, Hi-C, and a private label of Stop and Shop have come out with similar products. “Clearly there is a market out there to flavor your own water,” Brian says. “We are trying to capture natural consumer for those markets, because all of the products I mentioned have all the stuff in it that our customer doesn’t want.”
“They are basically just full of junk,” he continues. “We believe there is a consumer that wants to flavor their water without artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and artificial colors.”
The Allens have already sold Drinkwater to local accounts and on Amazon. “We just started showing it to retailers, and it all depends on whether buyers say yes or no, but hopefully it will be in distribution second or third quarter next year,” Brian says.
Its competitors are several products in the ready-to-drink segment, Hint and Ayala, which are “essence waters,” water plus a very light flavoring. They are great products, Allen says, but he doesn’t like being stuck with the plastic bottle after drinking them.
At present marketing for both the Perfect Snaque and Drinkwater is trade marketing, where representatives give out free samples in stores. “It’s all about initiating trial,” Brian says, “and this is all we will do for the next year or so.”
They are still tweaking the store positioning for Drinkwater, whether it will go with bottled water, drink mixes, like Mio, Hi-C, and Tang, or teas. “I think positioning will be retailer-specific, depending on what they have in their stores,” Brian says.
The company is currently being financed via private investors.
The Allens’ first serious entrepreneurial challenge was the withdrawal of their first product, Bot, a “premium” low-sugar, flavored water for children, from the marketplace. The product launched in 2007. “At the time, what we were trying to do was offer a natural, better-for-you beverage than what was currently on the market — which were heavily sugared and unnatural children’s beverages,” Cricket says.
The serious downturn in 2008 was a real issue for their expensive, healthy beverage for children. At $1.49 per bottle, Brian explains, Bot was way too costly when compared to the juice boxes sitting nearby on the shelf; they went for maybe $1.89 for 10.
Even though the couple had done significant research about “what moms were willing to spend for healthy and organic products” before coming out with Bot for kids, Brian says, “you have to be careful with that kind of research — a lot of times that is an in-aisle decision.”
If, for example, Bot was on sale next to CapriSun, the price differential was just too high, he says.
Because Bot for kids had a relatively low margin, it would have needed to have a reasonably high turnover to be successful. “We were too expensive for a mom looking for economical ways to provide for the family,” Cricket says.
So the Allens decided to target the same drink at a different audience. Because Bot’s taste profile was also potentially attractive to adult consumers, they changed their target market and found themselves in the vitamin water set, dropping the kids’ beverage in 2009. When the Allens transformed Bot into an adult beverage, they kept the name but changed the branding, deleting the cartoon characters and going to a bigger bottle.
Because parents almost always buy children’s beverages in a grocery store, distribution of Bot for kids was relatively straightforward, which was not true for the adult beverage. For the children’s product, the buying decision point was central — to do the sell required simply a flight to a grocery chain’s headquarters for a conversation with a buyer. If the answer was yes, the chain would distribute the beverage in all its stores, and the Allens used United Natural Foods (UNFI), the largest natural foods distributor in the country, to disburse its products.
Adult beverages were another story, requiring what is known as direct store delivery (DSD), which pretty much means walking up and down the street, stopping at bagel shops, delis, bodegas, and gyms — all the places where thirsty adults might grab a bottle of flavored water. This method required a manufacturer like Bot to have its own sales force, a new expense.
Also, distributors were harder to come by with Bot for adults. “When we went into retailers with Bot for kids, it was a unique product,” Brian says. “When we went into retailers with Bot for adults, they said, ‘This is another vitamin water.’ It was going to be pushing a boulder up a mountain.”
The competition for the adult beverage was fierce. Coke, for example, spent $350 million on marketing when it bought Vitamin Water Zero, and Bot was hardly up to that level of investment. “You have to spend so much money to market your product that you can’t fund it on your margins, which are already slim with beverages,” Brian says, who adds that Coke’s product was selling at $1, while Bot for adults was $1.49 a bottle.
The adult Bot beverage was moving nicely in Whole Foods and Wegman’s, Cricket says, but the realities facing them made them think twice about how much to move forward on it. “We knew that we didn’t want to spend all our time raising money,” Brian says. “That’s not the fun part of being an entrepreneur, and it can be a full-time job.”
Of course, the process of marketing, repositioning, and then stopping production of Bot was a learning experience. “In a way, it got us to drill down and focus on what was going on and how can we tweak this and what else we can do,” Brian says. “Part of being an entrepreneur is always trying to poke holes in what you are doing.”
Cricket grew up in Princeton and graduated from Princeton High School. She loves sports, and participated in field hockey and lacrosse in high school and college. “It was a great formative part of my identity,” she observes. “I would definitely tell anybody that team sports are a great way to go as far as both confidence building and friendship.”
Her father, Marmaduke Jacobs, who died while she was in high school, worked in annual giving at Princeton University; her grandfather was Howard Menand, the dean of engineering at the university. Her mother, Molly Jacobs, worked for the town, coordinating senior citizen transportation. Cricket graduated with the Class of 1992 at Hobart and William Smith College in upstate New York, and then went to work in New York and in advertising, where she did branding, particularly on point-of-sale advertising, for Tanqueray, Dom Perignon, and Moet Champagne.
Although Brian’s 1990 degree, also from Hobart, was in economics, and he started working in a retail chain in Buffalo after college graduation — that lasted only two days. “I looked in the mirror one morning, and I knew this was not what I wanted to do with my life. By noon I had my car packed and was on my way to New York.”
He listened to an inner voice that urged him to do something he had always wanted to do, acting. “It was an epiphany,” he says. “I didn’t want to be on my death bed saying ‘what if.’”
He called his parents, thanked them for the degree in economics, and told them he was going to try acting. “And of course they weren’t too thrilled,” he remembers.
In New York he had bit parts in movies and episodic TV and did lots of commercials, but this taught him a lot about motivation and sales. “There is a lot of similarity between starting your own business and acting,” he says. In acting, “if you are not self-motivated and pound the payment, nothing is going to happen, and you’re going to starve. Acting is sales, trying to get a job, selling what you have.”
The experience of producing a small independent film paid off. “Producing a movie and getting a business together run into the same thing. Both have a lot of moving parts.”
Probably the primary motivation for Brian’s switch from acting to business, he says, was having children. Brian and Cricket met in 1996 in New York, on a blind date on New Year’s Eve. They moved to Lawrenceville in 2004, when the hardships of raising twins in a three-story walkup got to be too much. They chose the Princeton area because of Cricket’s family connections.
The Allens’ twin girls, now 10 years old, are very much a product of their parents, Cricket says. “They are as involved in the kitchen and exploring and working with ingredients as we are. They can crack a dozen eggs without putting a single shell in.”
Cricket suggested to the girls, who have grown up exposed to entrepreneurial lingo and natural, healthy cooking, and have done store checks with their parents, that they might want to start a blog. Although she helped them get started, the girls, who are in fourth grade, create all their own content and pictures for kitchen-twins.com.
In their December 29 blog post, “Super Star Broccoli Stems,” they echo many of their parents’ themes: “Don’t throw away the broccoli stems, they are delicious! They are a great source of vitamins, such as vitamin a. They are also a great source of fiber.”
Even with all the stresses of owning a business, the Allens mesh well both on the job and at home. “We work beautifully together, although we have different means to an end sometimes,” Cricket says. “There is a lot of incredible excitement that goes on — highs and lows — and to be able to share that without having to explain is great.”
But it took a little time to evolve as business partners. “Running and launching a business together has been extraordinarily challenging,” she says, noting that they have learned how to work together, knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and now are able to enjoy the process at the end of the day. They divide up the work, with Cricket handling market and public relations, Brian doing production and procurement, and both do sales.
“The first year and half was a little bumpy — blending the two worlds of your personal and professional life,” Brian says. “We work together great now.” Realizing that most of the tension between them had to do with design elements, he says they now they go back and forth with each design and revision until they both agree.
Running a business always presents challenges. “If you are running a business, you are going to have obstacles, you are going to have successes and failures,” Cricket says. “I can say that every challenge that has been presented to us thus far has been a feather in our cap; we have learned from every challenge and mistake.”
Thinking about what she has learned through her entrepreneurial career, Cricket says she would offer the following advice to an entrepreneur-to-be. “I would say, Take it slowly and spend as little money as you can to make sure you have the right product. It is very easy to get excited and run; take the crawl-walk-run approach rather than run first. It is easy to get caught up in your own stuff, spend a lot of money, and make mistakes.”
Bot, she says, went national overnight. “It looks great and is a nice ego boost, but once we wanted to make changes and pivot, it was harder to do. With Snaque, we have taken it much slower and are making sure the product is 100 percent right before we run. Now we are ready to run, and we are in a pretty good jog right now.”
The Perfect Snaque, 1800 East State Street, Hamilton 08609; 609-588-8903; Brian and Cricket Allen. www.theperfectsnaque.com.