Operations

Inside LesserEvil’s slow and steady pop into the snack market

The brand had to be “patient” before landing retailers like Target, Walmart, and Costco, its CEO Charles Coristine said.
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Erik Wander

· 5 min read

Organic snack maker LesserEvil’s success was a slow burn. The nearly 20-year-old brand’s journey from small, natural foods retailers to mass retail shelves featured a tight budget, ownership changes, and discontinued products. In popcorn, the brand found a kernel of inspiration, and it’s now reached over $100 million in sales with distribution at 35,000 retail locations including Walmart, Target, and Costco.

While the brand was founded in 2005, a major shift came around 2011, when now-CEO Charles Coristine quit his job as a bond trader on Wall Street to buy and revamp the brand and shift its focus to self-manufacturing. Earlier this month, Retail Brew hopped on the train to Danbury, Connecticut, to LesserEvil’s headquarters to see how the popcorn is popped (more on that next week), and chat with Coristine to get the story behind LesserEvil’s “methodical” and “measured” growth.

Taste test: When Coristine bought LesserEvil, whose main product was french fries and logo was a child with a devil horn and a halo with the slogan “Snack like a kid again,” he soon discovered it was in “dire straits.” The brand was getting pulled off shelves at the natural food retailers it was sold in and its co-packers were raising their rates. “We realized we needed to come up with a new product really quickly,” he said. So, he bought a manufacturing line to start producing its better-for-you snack products and soon opened its Danbury factory.

“What that allowed us to do is get super fucking playful,” Coristine noted. It tried out many different offerings, like chia seed-based snacks, before the brand eventually developed its hero product—an organic popcorn made with coconut oil and popped a bit differently than other ready-to-eat popcorn on the market (slower and at a lower temperature). It now has two hero popcorn SKUs, Himalayan Pink Salt and a butter-flavored Himalayan Gold.

  • It has also developed unique seasonal popcorn flavors (like Piña Colada and Watermelon Hibiscus) and other extruded snacks like Space Balls corn puffs, a Lil’ Puffs kids line, and a forthcoming take on better-for-you Funyuns called Moonions, set to hit Sprouts in June. “We want to reinvent Frito-Lay’s product line, but healthy,” Coristine joked.

The brand has been “patient” as it grows, waiting to build up exposure and velocities before mass retailers “really needed to have us,” Coristine said. Success in Whole Foods and Sprouts led to shelf space in Publix and Kroger and in the last few years, Walmart, Target, and Costco.

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It’s updated its branding several times, which is “one of the best ways we’ve ever spent money,” Coristine said. The simplified packaging, which features its signature cartoon image of Buddha and better unifies its product lines under its more-emphasized brand name, now lends itself to a “nice brand block” on retail shelves, Coristine said. (LesserEvil has a mock popcorn retail shelf in its office so it can visualize how it’s merchandised among its competitors).

In a crowded popcorn set filled with brands like Boom Chicka Pop, SkinnyPop, and Smartfood, Coristine said LesserEvil has broken through by offering a similar or even lower-priced organic option. That pricing is achievable through its self-manufacturing, he noted, creating larger margins by avoiding additional charges from co-packers. That also helped the brand raise prices by only 7% during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and avoid the unit volume declines many big CPGs are now contending with, he noted.

Ready to pop: LesserEvil’s growth has been on “tight purse strings,” Coristine noted. It’s been careful about raising VC funding (“The slower we can take money, the better it is for everybody,” he said). The company did raise $19 million last year, but only took in $5.5 million of that, which it hasn’t spent, he said, as the rest was a secondary transaction as ownership changed hands.

That move into Costco in particular took some extra $$, as LesserEvil expanded production lines to add capacity for multi-packs of single-serving bags and family-sized bags. The brand also this year opened a second manufacturing facility in New Milford, Connecticut. Taking on those big retail partners has been a bit nerve-racking, Coristine admitted, especially as he’s seen brands who have lost that distribution after committing so many resources to it.

“I used to lose sleep at night thinking if I lost that [Costco] business because every year we want to grow at 50% and we want to remain profitable,” he said. “That’s how we fund our internal growth. So if I stop growing or become unprofitable, then the wheels fall off the car.”

But risk, it turns out, is a necessary evil; Coristine said the worst advice he’s gotten is to “play it safe.” Instead, the brand favors “letting it fly in terms of trying new things.”

“We are constantly like, ‘Oh, that’s not working. Let’s try this.’ We’re always moving.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.