By Gregory Daurer | Oct 05, 2020
Snack puffs and chips
"We are a natural snack food company that is actually bringing taste back to healthy foods -- and also bringing authenticity, simplicity, and joy," says Finkel.
His company, Ancient inGRAINed Snack Co., markets Ka-Pop! chips and puffs, which are made from sorghum -- an edible grain with a "nutty taste and texture." For the chips, both whole grain sorghum flour and whole grain sorghum are mixed together, then run through a high pressure popper.
Finkel says, "Sorghum is not only amazing for your body -- with a dense nutritional profile of fiber, protein, and antioxidants -- but 91 percent of the land it's grown on uses zero irrigation. So, it's great for our water supply, and it's one of the few grains that adds nutrients back into our soil. It's really great for the earth -- and our bodies."
Finkel points out how he partners with farmers regionally, since "most of the sorghum in the world is grown in Colorado and Kansas." And, unlike corn, sorghum hasn't been genetically altered or modified over hundreds of years, so he says it's still considered an "ancient grain."
The chips are coated with olive or sunflower oil, which provides a base for adhering flavorings like Rosemary Garlic, Red and Green Sriracha, Cinnamon Churro, and Dairy Free Cheddar. Regarding the latter, Finkel says that dairy managers at grocery stores have oftentimes been unable to tell "the difference between our dairy-free product and real cheese, because it tastes so good." The chips and puffs are vegan, non-GMO, gluten-free, and made without any of the top 12 allergens, such as rice, dairy, soy, corn, or wheat.
Given that they're supposed to be healthy for you, many people are surprised they like the taste of them. On the cutthroat, high pressure, business-pitch show, Shark Tank, cynical cast member Kevin "Mr. Wonderful" O'Leary says with surprise in his voice upon tasting Finkel's chips for the first time, "I've tried a lot of this [non-]GMO, no carb, yadda-yadda-yadda . . . This is good!"
O'Leary -- and the thousands of TV viewers who flooded Ka-Pop!'s web site in the midst of the show's first airing in January 2020 -- had just witnessed Finkel theatrically morph from a Clark Kent-like pitchman into a cape-wearing, costumed superhero with a "Ka-Pop!" emblem emblazoned on his chest. He muscularly breaks a sign symbolizing "gluten, allergens, calories" over his knee. "I've made it my mission to defeat bad guys like that!" he says, before spotlighting how his product is, "Powered by sorghum!"
Ka-Pop's web site presents Finkel as a vibrant, CrossFit instructor and paleo-food-eating family man; when he stumbled upon popping sorghum, his family and friends immediately enjoyed the results. But looking over Finkel's LinkedIn page, one realizes the breadth of Finkel's past employment as a brand and marketing manager within both mainstream and cutting-edge food companies, including General Mills, Horizon Organic, WhiteWave Foods, and 8th Continent Soy Beverage. Finkel drew inspiration for Ka-Pop!'s logo from "old Batman cartoons and [the canvases of pop artist Roy] Lichtenstein." In brainstorming the product's name, the parameters were it "has to be fun, has to be energetic, and has to reference in some way what we're doing."
Finkel teaches marketing as an adjunct professor at CU Boulder. What lesson does he try to impart to his students? Finkel says they should seek to acquire more business acumen -- which he personally gained while employed as a senior financial analyst at Goldman Sachs. "You really should invest time and effort to become as much of an expert in the financial side of your business as possible," he says, before adding, "We've had a decent amount of success raising money, because I'm able to communicate in terms that investors really understand."
Finkel's team includes four experienced, professional women -- one being his wife, Christina, the company's chief marketing officer -- who have "over 75 years combined of packaged goods experience." When a grocery chain wants to know how his company is positioned for long-term growth, Finkel tells them, "We can operate with the simpleness, the flexibility, the entrepreneurial spirit of a start up, with the knowledge and the execution of a big company."
Ka-Pop! products are sold online through Amazon, as well as through the company's own website, and brick-and-mortar stores. "We're in every region of the country through different partners," says Finkel, noting that distribution is nationwide within Sprouts shops. The brand is also gaining steam in Kroger stores, like King Soopers. In the Rocky Mountain region, the chips and puffs can also be purchased at Whole Foods. "We're in about 1,500 to 2,000 retail locations [nationwide]," says Finkel.
In 2018, the company's sales were $150,000." It grew 500 percent in 2019. "In 2020, we're on pace to grow another 300 to 400 percent," says Finkel. The products are contract manufactured for the company in Colorado and one other location, which Finkel won't reveal. "Moving freight around the country is a huge cost," he says about manufacturing outside the company's base in Colorado.
Finkel says "great ingredients, great product, and great taste" are what "makes eating exciting." He adds, "We care so deeply about our mission: bringing amazing products to consumers -- and doing it in an authentic way."
Challenges: "The biggest challenge is awareness," says Finkel. "I think what we are very fortunate to have is a product that people genuinely love." He adds, "We don't have the dollars to compete with the Frito-Lay," in terms of marketing and shelf space. "Driving that awareness is our biggest obstacle." In terms of his appearance on Shark Tank, Finkel likened the opportunity to a "Super Bowl commercial for small companies like mine."
Opportunities: "The biggest opportunity is continuing to drive velocity on shelf," says Finkel. If grocery stores continue to see the volume of sales they require, the better the chances will be for the brand's longevity and success.
Needs: "The financial resources to be successful," says Finkel. "We have a product that's really healthy, really clean, and tastes amazing. We've just got to get it into people's mouths."