In The Business Of Snacks

By Rachel Coats / Photography by Rich Smith

Chattanooga is home to an impressive array of cuisine options for every meal, but what about the stretch between lunch and dinner when appetites act up? Next time you get a mid-afternoon craving for something salty or want to satisfy your sweet tooth, check out these local entrepreneurs who have turned their favorite snacks into successful businesses. From decadent confections to finger foods tossed in savory seasonings, there’s a locally made snack to suit any palate. Meet the innovators behind these businesses and learn how partnering with brick-and-mortar retail stores helped propel their endeavors and share delicious flavors with Chattanooga and beyond.

Bean Thinkin

Thomas Slaugh

While corn-based snacks crowd the shelves at the grocery stores, Thomas Slaugh has dreamed up a different, healthier option from an unlikely source – navy beans. His Chattanooga-based bean puff company, Bean Thinkin, offers snacks packed with protein and flavor.

Slaugh spent the early years of his career in product research and development, creating a wide variety of snack foods for major brands. “I really appreciated the process and nutritional value for bean puff production, and these types of products became a passion. I decided to turn it into a business venture because of the encouragement from local new business mentors and former colleagues,” recalls Slaugh.

The business attracts customers with its punny name, hot pink branding, and witty marketing, and the bean puffs, with their nutritious benefits. Each bag boasts a lower sodium count than popular chip brands and offers four grams of both protein and fiber. The bean puffs provide a blank canvas for flavors, which Bean Thinkin currently offers two of: white cheddar and chipotle.

Navigating production limitations, the distribution supply chain, and a slow process to get into major retail outlets have been the business’s biggest challenges as an emerging snack product. Slaugh has persevered through these challenges with an unwavering confidence in his product, which was affirmed when Chattanooga Riverboat Co. saw a Bean Thinkin promotion and inquired about stocking the snacks. Slaugh entered his first retail partnership with the company, and soon, bags of Bean Thinkin were on the shelf.

“It’s the same as when I would create other snack foods that ended up on the shelf – it’s like seeing one of your babies grow up. It’s a very long and tedious process from the benchtop to the shelf. Now that the product is from my own company, it also comes with feelings of anxiousness because seeing it on the shelf reinforces the need for it to succeed,” shares Slaugh.

Gaining more retail presence is Bean Thinkin’s top priority, as Slaugh aspires to retail his products in every local grocery store outlet and then expand regionally from Chattanooga. Until then, Bean Thinkin continues to grow through direct online sales and incremental placement in local retail channels. “I think partnering locally is critical to building a loyal brand following,” observes Slaugh. “People love to support their local brands. Then you have a stronger identity to grow across a region.”

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Belle Chocolates

Brendan Patrick

For Brendan Patrick, owner of Belle Chocolates, quality ingredients are vital. His chocolate business markets itself as “bean to bar,” intentionally participating in every step of the chocolate-making process, from sourcing the cacao to preparing the chocolates for retail.

After first encountering bean to bar chocolate, Patrick embraced a self-taught season of learning how to make chocolates, quickly becoming proficient in enough basics to open Belle Chocolates for full-time operations in January of 2019.

Chocolate-making is an involved process, requiring skill and necessary equipment. “The biggest hurdle was the barrier for entry of knowledge and financial investment,” explains Patrick. “It took a lot of work to gain the skills needed to make a consistent, delicious product, and chocolate equipment is not cheap!”

Belle Chocolates offers a wide variety of chocolates that can be enjoyed as an afternoon indulgence or decadent dessert. Customers will have a hard time choosing which mouth-watering chocolate to enjoy, as options range from bon bons filled with ganache, caramel, coconut, or peanut butter to single-origin dark and milk chocolate bars with different flavor notes.

Patrick partnered with since-closed Plus Coffee to begin retailing these chocolates. “The owner and I were acquainted when I began and were able to work out a deal to get my products on the shelf as well as provide production space,” he shares. At first, Patrick found the experience to be “nerve-racking,” explaining that he initially worried who would accurately market his products when he wasn’t there. “Thankfully, the group was interested in learning, and it was a great launch overall,” he adds.

Now, Belle Chocolates has a brick-and-mortar location of its own while continuing to retail in about a dozen local stores. It shares the space with FarmToMed, a CBD dispensary whose focus on clean sourcing and production mirrors Patrick’s and creates a successful partnership. “FarmToMed and Belle Chocolates have a ton of synergy. Our ethics regarding processing of raw product and ingredients are the same, and our focus on quality is paramount,” says Patrick.

As business continues to grow, Patrick hopes to acquire more equipment to ramp up production and expand Belle Chocolates outside of downtown Chattanooga by the end of the year. The care that Patrick puts into his chocolates is evident, his passion for the craft making them that much sweeter.

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Seahorse Snacks

Stacy Martin

For Stacy Martin, the seahorse is more than a quirky sea creature and the logo of her snack business. Martin identifies with these small aquatic animals; like them, she does not have a stomach. Because of a rare genetic mutation and its connection to gastric cancer, Martin had her stomach removed – a life-saving procedure that led to the creation of Seahorse Snacks.

No longer having a stomach drastically altered Martin’s diet, requiring her to eat at least every two hours to maintain a healthy energy level. After purchasing a bag of nuts at a local market and finishing it within three days, Martin realized that nuts are the perfect snack for her situation – they are nutritious, portable, and don’t require temperature regulation. She recognized that she could help people in similar positions in their health journey, as well as offer anyone a tasty, on-the-go snack by creating and selling packages of seasoned nuts herself. Martin began experimenting in her home kitchen, refining her roasting process and recipes. She recalls, “I started all of this out of my house – that alone was an adventure. Then, I started getting the hang of everything, making and selling at markets.”

Seahorse Snacks sells almonds, cashews, pistachios, and pecans tossed in sweet or savory seasonings, like chili turmeric and maple chai. While Martin started out making these mixes in small batches, relocating to a commercial kitchen space increased her manufacturing capacity tenfold. “Converting my recipes and wrapping my mind around making 100 bags at a time versus twelve was another learning experience,” she shares.
Increasing production allowed Martin to shift her focus to retail and enter her first partnership with Bleu Fox Cheese Shop, which began stocking Seahorse Snacks on its shelves. “It just made sense! We have similar customer profiles. They are all about small businesses, and my products complement what they do,” explains Martin.

As Seahorse Snacks grows and shares both her story and products with Chattanooga, Martin is especially grateful for the people who have helped her along the way. “It’s a really great store run by great people,” Martin enthuses about her partnership with Bleu Fox Cheese Shop owners Jesse and Brittany Watlington. “I have been supporting them since they opened, and now, they are part of my success story as well.”

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The Chef and his Wife Foods

Timothy and Shelley Mulderink

Timothy and Shelley Mulderink are committed to making pimento cheese “grate” again. Cheesy puns and spreads alike are at the heart of their catering-turned-cheese spread company, The Chef and his Wife. After their pimento cheese became a signature dish on their catering menu, the Mulderinks decided to turn big dreams into reality.

“I had always dreamed of taking our Original, Smoked Gouda, and Jalapeño pimento cheese flavors to retail grocery stores,” says Timothy. He approached Food City about retailing containers of The Chef and his Wife’s pimento cheese and was met with a positive response – his first retail partnership. “We owe so much to Food City,” he shares. “We started stocking our pimento cheese in six stores; in five years, with patience and a lot of hard work, it grew to 140 Food City stores.”

Timothy felt both thrilled and anxious upon achieving retail status, excited to see his product on a shelf yet aware of the next challenge – getting customers to buy it. “The challenge was and still is how to navigate the grocery industry and networking required to open doors. The second challenge is marketing to the public, so they are aware we exist and know to find us in the grocery stores,” he explains. “I always say, ‘It is hard getting it in the back door of the grocery stores. It is equally hard getting it out the front door.’”

One of the ways the Mulderinks have worked to gain customers is by offering pimento cheese samples in grocery stores. They enjoy the opportunity to connect with shoppers, share their product in person, and even change tasters’ opinions. Noticing a need to improve enthusiasm for pimento cheese, the Mulderinks are focused on changing people’s minds. “We are redefining a food that has a rather boring image. Many people who love cheese will say they do not like pimento cheese, until they taste it,” says Timothy, jokingly adding, “We call them converts.”

Now, The Chef and his Wife pimento cheese retails in the dairy sections of multiple large grocery store chains in six states, along with local outlets. Looking ahead, the Mulderinks aim to build brand awareness and partner with more stores to achieve national status.

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LoLo Bars

Lauren Mindermann

What began as fuel for rafters braving whitewater rapids is now a thriving part of the CBD industry. Lauren Mindermann created LoLo Bars in 2018 as a granola bar company catering to whitewater rafters and kayakers on the Ocoee River, being a raft guide herself. After the legalization of hemp that same year, local growers approached Mindermann about infusing food with CBD extract.

A University of Tennessee –Chattanooga alumna with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics, Mindermann utilized her education to experiment with and offer CBD-infused products. These quickly gained popularity and launched LoLo Bars’ new identity as a CBD edibles company. Mindermann shares, “By combining food and medicine, I knew I was aligning my passions as a foodie and to help people naturally.”

Helping people became a driving force for LoLo Bars, as its customers reported relief from insomnia, pain, and anxiety, and through products made specially for dogs, pet troubles. Mindermann wanted to spread the benefits of her products and knew retailing at nearby shops could do that, already having a first option in mind – local dispensary, the Hemp House. “I very timidly approached the Hemp House, nervous that they may say no,” she recalls. “Dwayne Madden, the owner, was thrilled to have more local products to add to his shelf.”

Since its products first hit the shelves at the Hemp House, LoLo Bars has expanded to retail at over 30 locations in Tennessee, as far away as Nashville, along with an online store that ships nationwide. LoLo Bars continues to operate with an emphasis on supporting the community. Products are infused with legal, full-source CBD hemp extract from local farms, third-party tested at nearby lab facilities, and retailed in locations across eastern Tennessee. Mindermann has maintained her first working relationship as well, sharing, “The Hemp House is still to this day one of our biggest accounts, and we absolutely love working with them.”

Mindermann tells us, “So much hard work goes into every product; seeing it on display at a store feels rewarding. Most people don’t see everything that a product is, but to me, it’s more than a simple rice crispy treat … it’s years of hard work, determination, patience, education, time, money, and the grit to do it all. I now look at products on the shelf differently.”

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