The Supply Side: Entrepreneur’s allergy-friendly snacks land in 1,800 Walmart stores

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 640 views 

Growing up as an athlete in Eden Prairie, Minn., Blake Sorenson had a nut allergy and often found many healthy snack bars containing almonds and other tree nuts he could not consume. He played linebacker for the Wisconsin Badgers from 2007 to 2011 with an EpiPen never far away.

Sorenson often turned to seeds instead of nuts for his salty snack cravings and continued to watch what he ate. In 2016, Sorenson returned to college to pursue a master’s degree in business administration at Indiana University.

There, he took a social entrepreneur class that would change his life and lead to Blake’s Seed Based. It required him to start a business that solved a social need. Looking at his own life, Sorenson came up with the idea to create snacks that are allergy-friendly that everyone could eat. He began in his kitchen trying to create bars made from seeds and void of any significant allergens.

“I bought a food processor and experimented with hundreds of formulations until I found something healthy and tasted good,” he said. “I made the bars in my kitchen and took them to class in Tupperware containers to get feedback from my friends and classmates in Indiana. I called the product Blake’s Nut Free. We found two or three flavors we really liked.”

He searched for a manufacturer that could help him with a product launch. He found a Canadian manufacturer who focused on allergen-free production and agreed to work with him but said the first run would cost $20,000. That’s when Sorenson turned to social media with a Kickstarter campaign in February 2018 to assess the market demand for his salty snacks.

“We raised more than $23,000 on the first day of the campaign for product pre-orders,” he recalled. “I worked with my manufacturer, and we got the first pre-orders out in February 2018. During the next few months, we tweaked the name and got valuable feedback from our customers and social media. It was rudimentary back then. We used Microsoft Paint to design our packaging. We officially launched Blake’s Seed Based brand snacks in September 2018 and got the product on Amazon.”

Sorenson then began to believe the product could be a career. He visited trade shows over the next year to make connections and try and get the bars into retail. In March 2019, Blake’s Seed Based product was in prominent retail stores around the Midwest. By September, the company celebrated being in 1,000 retail stores and had an online service.

“Our goal was to have our products available everywhere. We want it at every gas station, every retailer and online. We’re expanding our distribution, product line, and retail exposure, and we are coming to United Airlines snack boxes soon,” Sorenson said.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Sorenson said he continued to try and make contacts with retail brokers and distributors. That paid off, with the product in Sprouts Farmers Market stores nationwide by the end of that year.

As the pandemic continued, Sorenson said he also focused on expanding his product line to include vegan rice crispy treats, and that product was launched in January 2021. Sam’s Club did a promotional buy for the crispy treats in late 2021, and the brand also made it into 500 Kroger stores. He’s also got the snacks in Costco.

“We always knew we wanted to be in Walmart, and even though I met snack buyers at expos three years ago and they were interested, … I was not ready then,” he said.

Over the next two years, when the buyers did semiannual line reviews, Sorenson submitted his sales and distribution numbers and continued to stay in touch. He said perseverance was rewarded.

“I finally got to the point where the product brand awareness was strong enough for Walmart to give me a chance,” Sorenson said.

Sorenson was invited to Bentonville earlier this year and was given 1,800 U.S. stores for the granola seed snacks and the vegan crispy treats. The granola/seed bars are $3.98 for a box of five. The vegan-friendly crispy treats are $4.48 for a pack of six.

“It went well,” he said. “We shipped out to stores in July, and most of the stores are getting out on the shelves now. We can track the progress through Walmart’s Retail Link Portal, and every day we see more stores pop up with sales.”

He said the challenge for Blake’s Seed Based is that the snack category is competitive overall. Still, his allergy-friendly bar serves a niche market, and people who try them typically become loyal customers. He said the company will ship and sell millions of bars this year. Sorenson hopes to expand its product lines and grow its market share in the crowded category.

Keeping sugar content low and having a cleaner ingredient list remains important for Sorenson. He continues to work on new flavor profiles and formulations with his co-packing manufacturer. He said the manufacturer ships products to his warehouse in Chicago, and Blake’s Seed Based ships the products to customers.

Sorenson said he has expanded production because of angel investors who continue to support and mentor the business. The company has five employees working remotely around the country. The home base is in Chicago. Sorenson lives in Denver but often visits Chicago.

While it was not his original intention in 2018 during grad school to create a growing snack food company that he would still be running at age 35, Sorenson said business is solving a need and has become his passion. Sorenson said he has learned the importance of listening to consumers. He said it’s essential to assess where a business is winning and why constantly. There are no shortcuts, and it’s hard work, he said.

Editor’s note: The Supply Side section of Talk Business & Politics focuses on the companies, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by Propak Logistics.