Sneaking in some veggies: Former Kashi employee launches nutrient-packed chocolate drink for kids
By Pat Sherman
As an employee of La Jolla-based Kashi breakfast cereal company, Allison Fowler learned the natural foods industry inside- and-out — helping market the company’s snack line, including everything from granola and energy bars to crackers. She even starred in a Kashi cereal commercial.
“I just became really passionate about natural, organic foods,” said Fowler, a Bird Rock resident who, as an employee of Miller Brewing Company, helped launch Miller 64, the lowest calorie beer on the market.
After leaving Kashi last year (the cereal- maker has since relocated to its parent company headquarters in Battle Creek, Mich.), Fowler and another former Kashi employee, Charlie Philp, came up with an idea to make vegetables more palatable to children. “If you look at statistics, two- thirds of children aren’t getting their daily vegetables,” Fowler said.
“We got together and said, ‘There’s a real need to make vegetables more accessible, to make them more fun and friendly for kids.”
Tinkering around in Fowler’s kitchen, she and Philp began to blend various veggies with chocolate milk, to mask their earthy, bitter taste. The result was Sneakz Organic — a chocolate milk drink containing a “deliciously disguised,” full serving of vegetables in each eight-ounce, lunchbox-ready carton.
Though they had experimented with vegetables from spinach and celery to beets and kale, the final product contains a palatable blend of sweet potatoes, carrots and broccoli in a milkshake made with sweet Dutch cocoa.
To get the taste just right, and, as Fowler puts it, turn children’s “yuck faces to yum smiles,” she and Philp used neighborhood children as taste testers.
“We immediately found that sweet potato was a really tasty vegetable and is like a nutrition powerhouse … so that was one of the winning vegetables,” Fowler said, adding that the deciding factors were taste, nutrition and whether the vegetable was readily available from an organic wholesaler at a reasonable price.
More than a year after their kitchen taste-testing, Sneakz is available on shelves at 350 stores around the country (mostly in Southern California and Denver). In San Diego, it can be found at natural grocery chains such as Sprouts, Jimbo’s and Kiel’s, and is also offered at UC San Diego and at Rady Children’s Hospital.
Each carton contains: eight grams of protein and two grams of fiber, as well as 50 percent of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A, 20 percent of Vitamin C and 30 percent of calcium.
Fowler and Philp said they may use beets in their next drink, most likely a non-dairy, berry flavored drink to be on the market by year’s end.
Fowler, who attended both All Hallows Academy and Torrey Pines High School in her youth, earned her masters in communications from the Annenberg School at University of Southern California.
Philp, a native of Oklahoma, relocated to the Boulder, Colo., area (often referred to as the “Silicon Valley of organic food production”) to be closer to food scientist, Derek Spors.
“His company basically helps small organic companies develop recipes, taking it from our work in the kitchen to being able to put it in a package,” explained Philp.
Sneakz is produced and packaged at Northern Califor- nia food processor, Tetra Pak. Until Fowler and Philp increase distribution (they said they expect to be in 700 stores by the fall), Fowler maintains a day job at her father’s beverage distribution company, Liquid Investments.
Fowler said everything from developing the product packaging (featuring Sneakz mascot “Bandit the Fox”) to getting nutritional labeling approved and the product on consumer shelves took twice as long as expected — and twice as much money. She advises others starting a business to be prepared for such setbacks.
“When you’re in the system of a big corporate marketing machine, everything is that much easier, because you have specialists along the way that are helping you with each (step),” Fowler said. “When you’re doing it on your own, you come across stumbling blocks and you have to figure out solutions on the fly.”
Financing Sneakz Organic also proved challenging, she said. “The venture capital firms we talked to have certain size requirements … from an annual revenue standpoint,” she said.
In the end, Fowler and her partner reached out to friends, family members and angel investors to get their concept off the ground. “That’s something that I think every start-up faces as they get going,” she said.
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