“We now have this vision of what we want Snact to be – we didn’t necessarily have that three years ago”
Co-founder of sustainable snack brand Snact, Michael Minch-Dixon says, “Setting up a business is a bit like playing video game. You have to reach certain milestones in a specific time – if you do, you get to the next level. But as soon as you achieve that, you have another target on the horizon, and the difficulty increases”.
So what keeps a young entrepreneur going? “The farther you are in, the more rewarding it becomes,” replies Snact’s Ilana Taub, who founded the brand with Michael. “The more we’ve gone into it, the bigger our ambitions and plans have grown. We now have this vision of what we want Snact to be – we didn’t necessarily have that three years ago. And that’s come from the amazing backing we’ve had from the sector – working with contract caterers, airlines, retailers… it’s made our appetite for tackling food waste enormous!” The two were school friends who went on to do an MSc in Environmental Technology at Imperial, and in late 2012 at an alumni dinner had an idea to translate their interest in sustainability into a business with an environmental and social ambition.
With the seedlings of an idea and a bit of research on snacking trends, Ilana and Michael submitted a very rough draft to a sustainable start-up competition. Be the Start ran by Virgin and BITC. Their pitch: to make taste dried fruit snacks from produce that would otherwise be rejected for not conforming to the ideals of fruit beauty, and provide healthy alternative to traditional snacking while reducing the tonnes of food waste in the UK. To their great surprise, they were shortlisted as one of five finalists. “That was very motivating and really kicked us off,” says Michael. “We didn’t win that £10k, but the fact we were shortlisted empowered us – it confirmed it was a good idea, we got noticed and we wanted to push it further.” It’s interesting looking at those slides from years ago. They bear little resemblance to what Snact is today, but the core idea – that food is being wasted for all the wrong reasons and something could be done about it –survived all the permutations of the brand that was eventually built around it with some added complexity.
At that stage, the Snactivists in the making took the plunge: quit their jobs and after a long brainstorm settled on a name – Snact was born. Instead of their initial plan to make fruit crisps, they created fruit jerky – their own variation on fruit leather, a traditional method of preserving fruit. “It was a complete coincidence,” says Ilana, “I was researching apple waste and talking to lots of orchards, and someone mentioned a food historian who had an interesting blog. I looked on it, and there was a post about fruit leather. I Googled the recipe and started experimenting in my kitchen. Our first investment was a £100 dehydrator.”
Snact then completed another level of their business challenge –producing and selling the first batch of fruit jerky with positive reviews from their first customers. They were running a small but successful operation, picking up fruit from Spitalfields or New Covent Garden markets, lugging it to Hackney Wick in a kitesurfing bag, processing and packaging it, and selling at a different market. “At that time fruit jerky was like gold dust. So much labour went into producing a relatively small amount,” remembers Michael. “We knew we had to do it all on this DIY scale to show that the product could work and that people liked it, but we also knew that for the business to sustain itself we would have to sell an incredible amount. We were looking into the possibilities of growth, and above all else, I’ve never wished so intently for anything as I wished at the time to never have to make fruit jerky by hand again,” he admits.
The two have come a long way since. Today, Snact’s fruit jerky is made in Kent on a commercial scale and distributed in a number of independent outlets across the country and the list is growing every day. As they grow and mature, so do their challenges as a start.up. “We are about to launch with some bigger names, which would’ve seemed inconceivable when we were just starting out,” Ilana commented. “But that again presents a new challenge – how to communicate our complex message quickly and effectively so all people need to do is look at our product and see what we’re about and how we’re different form other brands.” As they’ve grown, Michael and Ilana have also had to learn to play with the big guys, something they haven’t always found easy. “You hear about big corporates in the food sector wanting to work with smaller companies and support innovation, and while that has helped us get a foot in the door, we’ve found that it gets trickier down the line. It seems the bigger players quickly forget they’re working with start-ups who might not have the same resources they do…
“We expect that with greater recognition with distributors and customers, new challenges will appear…and we’re ready for that. Starting and running your own business is really hard, and if your motivation was based on money we would have stopped long ago. Ultimately what keeps us going is hearing and knowing, that we’re working on a good thing – the right thing.