Adam Melonas admits that the most difficult part of his job was to fix something that many did not consider was broken. Children don’t think it’s broken. Adults don’t think it’s broken. And, most importantly, a multi-billion-dollar food industry enriching themselves with a chemical rainbow of products loaded with hydrogenated oil and high-fructose corn syrup don’t think it’s broken. Candy is what Melonas, an Australian-born chef with a resume spanning Europe and the Middle East, refers to as the beacon of bad — the ultimate symbolic junk food. And nobody was really doing anything to, well, make it less junky.
Enter Unreal, a Massachusetts-based company I first learned about last fall. The celebrity-packed teaser video featuring Gisele Bundchen and Matt Damon piqued my interest, but what really got my attention was when a staff member bought some for the office at our local CVS (it’s currently available at 18,000 retail locations across the United States). It was good, almost too good to be mass-produced. The five products Unreal sells — branded simply with numbering (Unreal 5, Unreal 77) — are so familiar, it would be no shock if a floor of lawyers representing Mars and Hershey were putting their kids through college on the action.
For somebody who doesn’t really do M&Ms and Milky Ways (though Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups is most certainly my jam), the “Candy Coated Chocolates” found in a package of Unreal 41 were really appealing. The colors were duller oranges and blues than the candy coated originals, but there was a really definitive sense of chocolate with the product. A deeper flavor. Same went for the peanut butter cup proxy. Less sweet, but more intense peanut appeal. All with 30% less sugar, 60% more protein and 250% more fiber than the competition (with retail prices between $.89 to $1.29 per package).
“When a 12 year-old child is telling you that he wants to solve the problem of other youth in America, it’s powerful,” says Melonas after taking a sip of mineral water. He’s refereeing to Unreal’s co-founder Nicky Bronner, who is now 15 and started the company with his father Michael — famous for founding digital advertising firm Digitas and later selling it for over $1 billion. Unreal’s genesis is traced back to a debate over Halloween candy. Michael, a health-conscious runner, tossed out half of his son’s haul as a lesson in healthier lifestyle choices. Nicky, 13 at the time, protested. But instead of pouting, he hit the Internet to prove his father wrong. That the candy wasn’t that bad for you. He instead found the truth (candy is packed with artificial dyes and test-tube generated fats), unlocking the data that would inspire Unreal.
Though a little too tidy to fully believe, the anecdote does show that the company has a youthful spirit, which might just speak to the kids trawling the candy aisle. And it’s Melonas job as the company’s head chef and chief of innovation to make sure they leave happy. We spoke with him about co-founding Unreal.
Was your first meeting with the Bronners like: “We are going to engineer a new peanut butter cup that has this, this and this, but not this?”
Firstly, from a food point of view, we had to figure out categories: things we wanted to remove and categories of things that we wanted to include. Categories of things we wanted to remove were very simple: chemical-based, artificial preservatives, artificial colors. The real nasty, nasty stuff. We wanted to include protein, fiber and as much of the good stuff as possible — things like cacao. If we were going to make a chocolate, we wanted to make a very good chocolate. And what is chocolate made of? Its primary ingredient is cacao.
What happened next?
Once we agreed on what it was going to be conceptually, we looked into specific products we would actually do – the food side of it. We took a look at the top selling products within America and said that within that, we wanted to provide something for everyone. So you’ll see the product we have with nougat, caramel and chocolate, which is coincidentally similar to a Milky Way.
Not coincidentally or coincidentally?
Coincidentally [laughs]. We said that we needed something for everybody. Someone might not like peanuts in their candy, or someone might like nougat and caramel but not the peanuts. Just like we didn’t want to create a product for only rich people and sell it at expensive stores at a premium.
And we found your product at CVS.
Right. And they’re the same price as a Snickers bar.
What about the ones that were coincidentally similar to M&M’s?
It was a very tough one.
It was my favorite, probably, because it took on a different dimension. Less sweet, more chocolate.
That’s funny because it’s also one of my favorites. That one and the one coincidentally like a Milky Way. You talk about the sweetness — we’ve reduced the sugar to the absolute minimum, so therefore you’re getting so many more flavors inside of that. There are flavors in chocolate that get masked by over-saturation of sugar. If you were to take out the chocolate from the inside, with no candy shell, it’s a totally different experience. I was able to take out so much sugar — why do you need an ultra sweet chocolate that tastes complete on the inside when you are always going to be eating it inside the candy shell?
Let’s shift a little and talk about the business. Are people being buying into this?
So far, we have been extremely humbled by the response. One of the secrets to what we’re doing is hitting national distribution from day one.
You launched with like 18,000 stores? That’s, like, a lot.
It’s pretty serious. And to launch with amazing partners like Target and CVS is a credit to what we’re doing. The most important thing to understand from this is that people buy into the mission first, before they see the business opportunity. That’s how we hire all of the people involved in the company, that’s how we found partners, that’s how we found retailers. Even though we are still the little guy and are obviously not doing the same amount of volume as the big guys out of the gate, there is the understanding that changing the world doesn’t happen overnight.
You talk about about “traceable” ingredients, like cacao beans from Ghana and Ecuador. And organic palm oil from Brazil. Did you travel a lot to source these ingredients?
If we’re going to un-junk people’s bodies, we’re not going to junk the planet in the meantime. We don’t want damage to be done to the planet or to people in the process. The key one I want to focus on is palm oil — it’s almost forbidden to talk about in most circles in America because of how they are growing it. We said rather than jumping on the bandwagon and saying “No palm oil,” we knew that it was good for you. Five thousand years ago, Egyptians knew that and found it in tombs. Therefore, we weren’t going to demonize the ingredient, and were instead going to demonize the process. I visited Ecuador, where we get some of our beans, and it was the same story. Soon, we will be able to measure the quantifiable impact that we are having everyday on people’s lives. Rather than coming with fancy marketing logos like Fair Trade stamps or things like that, we are actually trying to make an impact on real people’s lives in real situations.
How did you get all those celebrities to endorse your product out of the gate. You much have paid them a lot…
It’s very simple. The way we bring partners and employees on board is the exact same way we bring retailers on board. Everyone first buys into the mission. If they’re moved by the mission, they’re going to see the opportunity. Every single one of the people who were in the movie, as well as people who are associated with the brand right now, came on board for the mission. There are no paid endorsements. Everyone was betting and supporting with their own money, not because they think the business opportunity is amazing, but because they believe that the opportunity to change the world is that strong and they all did it for the right reasons.
So they are investors?
Every single person that we’ve got there is an investor.
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