Sonoma Brands reinvents grocery ‘snack section’ with gourmet marshmallows, soup, chips
In January 2015, Jon Sebastiani sold his five-year-old Sonoma-based Krave Jerky to Hershey for an estimated $200 million. The company, with $36 million in 2014 sales, had taken off in the $2.5 billion dormant dried-meat snack category with newfangled flavors such as cabernet-rosemary and chardonnay-thyme.
The reinvigorated jerky made it into Whole Foods, 7-Eleven, Safeway, Target and Kroger markets, as well as into Four Seasons mini-bars and Virgin America planes.
After the sale, Sebastiani launched Sonoma Brands, a venture-capital company aimed at specialty foods.
Now he’s back in the saddle with investments and new companies he launched in the past year.
A triathlete and ski racer, Sebastiani is recovering from a skiing injury that required knee surgery.
“I was skiing down a beautiful, fresh, heavily moguled mountain about a month ago up in Tahoe, enjoying every part of this glorious winter,” he said in a Feb. 28 interview with North Bay Business Journal. “I put my pole down expecting some resistance. I got no resistance, lost my balance at about 20 miles an hour. I flipped my right tip and ripped my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). I’m on the mend,” he said, after surgery on his right knee.
While recuperating from injuries, he’s exercising his business savvy. “I’m in the office,” he said. “I go stir-crazy at home. I have my leg up. I had to cancel the Ironman I was doing in San Diego in April.”
The year-old Sonoma Brands launched two brands. One company called Smashmallow is growing even faster than Krave did.
“It’s a reintroduction of the marshmallow in an organic, fun manner,” Sebastiani said. “This is a category everybody in America knows. Everybody has a fond memory” as a kid of roasting marshmallows over campfires until they toast golden or making s’mores, a graham-cracker sandwich of marshmallow and melted chocolate. Marshmallows also were traditionally melded with crispy rice, and used to sweeten yams or top hot chocolate.
“We have turned it on its head and given it great flavors,” Sebastiani said. Seven flavors include Meyer-lemon chia seed, mint chocolate chip, toasted coconut pineapple, strawberries and cream, root-beer float, espresso bean and cinnamon churro.
“The term ‘snack section’ is emerging,” Sebastiani said, noting that the Smashmallows go into small snack bags that sell for $4. The product contains no corn syrup, and is made from organic cane sugar, tapioca syrup, gelatin, corn starch and various flavorings and seasonings.
“We have positioned them right alongside cookies, brownies, RedVines (red licorice), any other sugar snacks,” he said. “Hey, these are better for you. This will create a far more enjoyable s’more than just your typical vanilla.”
Admitting a persistent sweet tooth but conscious of his health as an athlete, Sebastiani sought to create a healthier sweet. At the start of a race to kick his energy into high gear, “I would find myself reaching for a marshmallow,” he said, in part because they have no fat. “That would satiate my sweet tooth, but it wouldn’t load me up with a ton of calories.”
Traveling in Paris after the Krave sale, he noticed that many French bakeries had unusually flavored marshmallows as a “snackable delicacy. That was my epiphany,” he said. “I like to start businesses that make sense to me.”