It all starts with the proverbial lightbulb. You see something and think “Hey, that could be something.” If you're like me, that idea gets filtered away with about 30,000 other ideas and leads to nothing. If you're Jerry Bello, that idea leads to money. Lots and lots of money. That's because Jerry's a snack food genius. You might not know it when you look at him — he's just a regular guy from Jersey who happened to hit it big — but when you're walking the aisles of Sam's Club and Costco, Jerry's right there in your ear whispering sweet nothings in the form of snacks.
He's the man behind Trader Joe's Pita Bites, Veggie Straws and Sensible Portions, a company he sold to Hains Celestial for a cool $110 million. He also is responsible for bringing Sheila G's Brownie Brittle to market, one of the big snack stories of the past year, helping turn the crunchy snack into a $50 million juggernaut in 18 months.
Bello's newest creation is called Pasta Chips and they're exactly what they sound like: semolina flour rolled thin and oven-baked with sauce-themed flavors like marinara and alfredo with a lot less fat than the chips you'd usually reach for. They provide the same satisfying experience that Bello discovered while eating a similar version at the Michelin-starred Osteria di Passignano in the Tuscan countryside a few years ago. He had a lightbulb moment that night and now the fruits (er, chips) of his labor are arriving in stores all over the United States.
I went to Italy with Bello to see exactly where inspiration struck and after a leisurely lunch in Florence, sat down with him to figure out exactly how one becomes a snack food genius.
When you started, did you have any background in food at all?
No. No background in food.
How did you launch a business without any background in it?
My first food business was a disaster. We made every mistake known to man. We just had no understanding of how to market food. I had no relationships. Ultimately, the business was going sideways for a little bit and finally I threw everybody out and went to follow my own gut. Just saying, you know, if I'm going to win or lose, I'm going to do it my way.
So what is your way?
Just common sense. You know, building relationships with people. Sitting down with people. Listening to buyers. Really hands-on on the manufacturing side; really understanding that.
What's your plan for rolling out Pasta Chips?
Right now, we're two months into rolling them out into grocery stores.
Are they national right now?
We are shipping as we speak. We have not made a call where somebody has said they do not want the product — everybody who we've presented to to-date, and that's 40-plus retailers. These are big supermarket chains: Publix, ShopRite, Safeway. The amount of response has been amazing.
Would you consider yourself a trailblazer in snack food?
I think “innovator.” I'm just always looking to create things that don't exist. I just think there are things in other countries and other cultures that have been proven and tested. Maybe some of that can be brought to America.
Where do you see the future of snack food going?
Well, I mean obviously health is a big trend — more baked goods, more and more things that are closer to being raw. More fresh foods. I think it's a good time to be creative because you can really create some interesting snack foods that are better for you. They can still give you the satiety of the old snack foods but in a way that's more healthful.
What is it about a product that lets you know you can take it and turn it into the next big thing?
Right now it's all about “permissive indulgence.”
What the heck does permissive indulgence mean?
It's kind of the buzzword out there in the snacking world. It's where somebody can eat something and they allow themselves to eat it. It fits a certain healthful metric that's in their minds, whether it's fat, whether it's calories, whether it's carbs, whatever they're counting.
When you find your next thing after Pasta Chips, what about it is going to trigger you?
What's the American public looking for? Lot of people are searching for protein, lot of people really want impact when they eat something so it has to be really impactful, it has to be light. It can't fill up their belly, so it has to hit the healthful metrics. To me, it always starts with the product. If the product is phenomenal, you win.
You're looking into your snack genius crystal ball. Ten years from now, what's the snack food that's going to change the world?
I kind of like fiddling around with beans. I think there's something with beans to be done. You're starting to see some lentil chips and things like that in our market, but I think doing things with raw beans and figuring out how to stabilize them by slowly drying them – because of the protein content, because of the low calories, if you could bake it or you could dry it, season it up… I think that's a very interesting spot for me.
There's a Jerry Bello in college right now. He's about to graduate and he wants to go into snack food. How does he become you?
There's two things. One, you have to follow your heart and your mind. I never make a business to make money first. I make a business or a product because I believe in it. If you make a good enough product and you work hard enough, ultimately the money will follow. Try never to compromise yourself by financial constraints. We almost think artistically or creatively. We create our stuff, whatever that means, and then we take it out to the public. If we did a good job and our instincts were correct, then it will fly.
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