When 12-year-old Nicky Bronner awoke the day after Halloween 2009 to find his parents had confiscated the previous night's booty, he lost it. His father, Michael, explained the candy wasn't good for him, and Nicky set out to prove him wrong. Instead, he was horrified to learn the ingredients in his favorite treats. Why not create an all-natural candy that also tastes good?
After calling about 15 chefs, Nicky found one who shared he and his father's vision -- Adam Melonas -- and the three started Boston-based Unreal in July 2012. They immediately went big: Unreal Candy is already on the shelves of 20,000 stores, including Staples and CVS, will soon be sold in Target and 7-Eleven. It scored major celebrity endorsements, via a promotional video featuring their personal friends Tom Brady and Gisele Bundchen, as well as Matt Damon and John Legend. In the video, Jack Dorsey, founder of Square and co-founder of Twitter, gives his thumbs up to the concept, saying, "Completely rethinking something we take for granted -- those are the innovations I love seeing."
Three years after one kid's Halloween outburst, Unreal Candy has attracted millions from investors and is taking on a massive goal: to rid the world of junk food, expanding into a line of snacks and beverages by 2014. HuffPost Small Business caught up with Nicky, now 15, and his father to find out how a kid, a chef and dad/entrepreneur with no food business experience plan to disrupt the food industry.
What was the feeling of waking up and finding your candy was gone?
Nicky: They had been taking my candy for about nine years, so it was like built-up rage unleashed in a bottle of fury. My favorite candy was a peanut butter cup, and I thought it can't be that bad for you. I knew on some level it wasn't just peanut butter and chocolate, but on another level, I never knew it was that bad. I had to walk back into the house with a look of shame on my face and tell my dad he was right this one time.
Michael: When he went online, what he found quite easily is that there was tons more sugar than he imagined, hydrogenated oil, corn syrup, artificial colors and flavors, chemicals and preservatives. Nicky is a "why" kid. He asked the question "why" about everything, and he kept trying to understand what's so bad about these ingredients. So the founding question of the company is "why?" Specifically, he asked, "why is it that all foods that I love the most have to be so bad for us?"
At what point did it the "whys" turn into an actual business?
Michael: Nicky's biggest concern was that the candy had to taste good, and we went through over 1,000 revisions on the five recipes and engaged well over 1,000 people in tasting this, along with Nicky and his friends, and felt Adam cracked this after six months.
The only reason I was supporting this was because I saw this as a potential catalyst for change. Rather than preaching that junk food doesn't have to be full of junk, this could prove it with the most insane of all the junk foods, which is candy.
Nicky: My dad would bring home health food from natural food stores on a daily basis, and if didn't taste that bad, we'd look at back of the package, and there'd be so much sugar, it was kind of a lose-lose deal. I never doubted it would be a business, but when I tasted Adam's candy, I knew it was coming soon.
How much capital did it take to start a major food company?
Michael: Our mentality was if were going to fulfill this crazy, grand mission to unjunk the world, we knew we had to do this right. We couldn't go into a small set of health food stores. We want to shift popular belief, which means going right to the mass market. It cost tens of millions to start. This is not a low-cost, low-capital business.
Are you trying to win a David vs. Goliath fight against these huge candy companies?
Michael: We're 20 people taking on established, entrenched companies with tens of thousands of workers. But we come in peace -- we're not coming in war. We're not trying to take them down -- that's a crazy thought. But if we can prove that unjunking candy can happen and that people actually want it, retailers are going to push it, then these big companies will evolve over time. That's our hope.
Nicky, you were motivated when you read that your generation is the first generation that's not going to live as long as your parents?
Nicky: You bet. I actually wanted to prove that wrong. I'm going to do my best to change the world.
Michael: There's an epidemic of obesity and diabetes, and nearly half of our calories come from on-the-go junk food, snacks and beverages. We want this to be this generation's food company.
Nicky, this business started from a fight with your parents, so it all ended well. Do you still fight with your parents?
Nicky: Constantly. We're always at it, but it always ends well.
Names: Michael Bronner, Nicky Bronner, Adam Melonas
Ages: 53, 15, 30
Started: July 2012
2012 Projected Revenues: Not disclosed. Sold in about 20,000 stores, by January in 30,000-35,000 stores
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