— by Jonathan Eisenthal,
photos by Rolf Hagberg
Food allergies continue to create consumer markets, and the potential for nut-free snacks is one of the biggest, but many big ideas start small.
Entrepreneur Rob Fuglie had his “aha” moment when he was standing in his pantry, snacking on sunflower seeds and suddenly he thought, “I love this taste but I miss the feeling of popping a peanut or a cashew into my mouth, the crunch, the feel of it. What if….”
He was missing the taste of nuts because his family discovered his son’s peanut allergy when, at 18 months, the boy toddled to the door to kiss his big sister goodbye before she got on the bus. She had just eaten a peanut butter sandwich, and the little boy broke out in a rash.
By the time his son was three, the Fuglie family had completely changed their food buying habits to cut out tree nuts and peanuts.
“About 10 percent of the population has food allergies, but that dictates the food choices for about 25 percent of the population—families shop for the person in the family with the allergy,” says Fuglie, who has an MBA from the University of St. Thomas and a communications degree from Saint Cloud State University. “Our son’s needs dictate 100 percent of the purchasing decisions for our family, and it goes beyond just us—his grandmother bakes differently, now. And it’s the same for every family with someone allergic. There’s a large market opportunity out there.”
Fuglie went to work in his kitchen with a pile of sunflower seeds, throwing in bits of this and pinches of that, and came up with “Nots!™”
But it’s one thing to have a tasty homemade recipe and another thing entirely to have a product for sale in stores. That’s where Charan Wadhawan, food scientist at the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, came in to assist. Now “Nots!™” are available at 24 locations—food co-ops and specialty stores—and the long-term strategy includes major retailers and institutional markets like college bookstores and snack shops.
“If you have a recipe for cookies, and you want to bring it to market because you feel there’s nothing like it on the market, AURI can help you take it from concept to commercialization,” says Wadhawan, who has been with AURI for 21 years. “Clients often don’t know where to start. We work with them on standardizing the recipe, moving from home methods to industrial methods, helping them scale up, performing quality control, and making sure the product comes out the same every time. We do nutritional analysis and make sure that a product meets FDA labeling requirements.”
In the case of “Nots!™” keeping a “clean label,” which is a label with minimum additives and preservatives, was a top priority; Wadhawan helped Fuglie develop a formula with just three ingredients—sunflower seeds, olive oil and cane sugar syrup—to maximize appeal to people with different food allergies.
Fuglie spent three days at Wadhawan’s lab in Crookston, where they together settled on the right formula and device for making the snack. AURI also provided cost-share assistance on a critical development item: getting registered with the international body, GS1, in order to have a UPC label. The registration costs $700, and having a UPC label is essential for developing relationships with distributors.
Now Fuglie works with a commercial kitchen in Fergus Falls, still on a small scale—about 100 cases a month—but the sky’s the limit. Eventually he hopes to have full-time workers and a dedicated production space.
Like many agricultural value-added activities in Minnesota, the dollar impact reaches from the farm gate to the retail store. Agricultural and food processing represent a fifth of Minnesota’s economy and AURI is at the forefront helping entrepreneurs develop the “next big thing,” to help ensure that Minnesota keeps the ag and food economic engine running strong.
AURI and Nots!
Idea to Commercialization: Create a non-nut snack that would appeal to those with nut allergies.
AURI’s role: AURI scientist Charan Wadhawan helped with product development and created a nutritional label with minimum ingredients, and AURI offered to cost-share assistance to help procure a UPC label for “Nots!”
Outcomes: “Nots!” owner Ron Fuglie works with a commercial kitchen in Fergus Falls to produce about 100 cases a month. Eventually he hopes to have full-time workers and a dedicated production space.