According to Mears, we all have a "little secret."
Before starting his natural candy company, he polled close to 200 friends and family members. One of the questions he asked: Do you eat candy alone or with others? The responses surprised him. "Everyone -- 100 percent of the people -- said they eat chocolate or candy alone," he laughs. "Everyone has a secret stash. Even my wife hides chocolate from me." And thus Little Secrets was born.
Of course, there was a bit more to it than that -- namely, a gap Mears had identified in the marketplace. "When you'd walk into Whole Foods, you could find premium chocolate candy bars and natural peanut butter cups," he recalls. "But you couldn't find candy-coated fair trade dark chocolate without artificial colors or flavors. We realized we could elevate that experience."
Little Secrets now provides more than 1,200 stores with seven regular and two seasonal varieties of its product. All are free of artificial ingredients, flavors, and colors. All eschew corn syrup in favor of sustainably sourced palm kernel oil. And all are created from fair trade chocolate and coated in naturally colored candy.
"We spent a lot of time getting the coating right," Mears says. "We didn't want dull, boring colors. And though our colors come from fruit and vegetable extracts, we didn't want Little Secrets to taste like a smoothie from the farmers market. We had to get the right balance where we have beautiful colors and a delicious product."
Orange was a particularly tough shade to perfect. "It's made from pumpkin and black currant," Mears explains. "We were originally getting some aftertaste with it and had to try three or four different iterations before we got it right. Our yellow comes from turmeric; blue is spirulina, red is beet juice and purple is red cabbage."
The company is growing rapidly -- Mears plans to expand into 2,500 stores by the end of the year -- and constantly scaling production. "We were able to find a good manufacturing partner in the Midwest where we have a lot of room for growth," Mears confides. "'And really, a partner that believes in what we're doing, the product we're selling and the brand we're creating."
He and his team are continuing to build out Little Secrets' seasonal program as well as launching new packaging and a new website in June. "We wanted to stay fun and approachable, but our new branding and packaging will be a little bit more premium as well," he says. "It's going to scream, 'Deliciousness!' When you look at it, you'll think, 'Oh my gosh! I need to put that in my mouth right now!'"
Challenges: "I think our biggest challenge is to continue to get people to try our product," Mears muses. "We're in grocery stores with thousands of products and we have to make ourselves known. Once people try us, they become loyal customers. But getting that initial trial is tough. It's one thing to get your foot in the door with a retailer but another to get consumers to pick up the bag and make a purchase."
Opportunities: Mears believes the opportunities for Little Secrets are virtually endless. "We fill a white space in the market that was there because there hasn't been a premium, delicious, candy-coated chocolate with clean ingredients before now," he says. "This gives us tremendous opportunities to really go in a lot of different directions and into a lot of different retailers."
Needs: "For us, our biggest need is just to put one foot in front of the other and execute on our plan," Mears says. "This includes the rebrand and continuing to market to consumers. But in terms of other needs, we're going to have to build out our team to support our growth. Our current 'basketball team' can handle things for the next six months, but then we'll have to see where we are and hire from there."