Food Service & Agriculture, Retail, and Small Business & Startups

Food startup gets shelf space at Meijer and Kroger

Simply Eight was launched by former Kellogg employees.

April 12, 2013
| By Pete Daly |
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Simply Eight, a small new Kalamazoo business producing minimally processed packaged foods of eight or fewer basic ingredients, has made it on to the shelves in some Meijer and Kroger stores in Michigan, according to its founder, Ernie Pang.

Since March 15, Simply Eight chewy granola bars have been in the breakfast/granola bar aisle of select Meijer stores in West Michigan, and its cookies have been in the natural foods section of select Kroger stores in Michigan since Feb. 15.

“We are extremely excited to have our products available on a broader basis to consumers seeking healthier options in their grocery stores. With so many processed foods with lengthy ingredient statements on store shelves, it can be a real challenge in finding the right choice,” said Pang.

Three of the four-person team who established Simply Eight, including Pang, are former employees of Kellogg. The fourth was a buyer for Spartan Stores who now works as a food broker. Pang said the four are “just a bunch of regular guys from Michigan” who started their business a couple of years ago and since then have done “a lot of testing,” originally working with Spartan Stores as their test market.

Pang was in marketing at Kellogg, “particularly in innovation.” He had an epiphany several years ago while grocery shopping with his son, now a student at Michigan State University. He thinks it was a processed frozen entree he was looking at that caused him to wonder “why the heck do these products have so many ingredients in them?” The list of contents “went on and on and on. So I ended up not buying it,” said Pang.

One of his team of “regular guys” worked in food science at Kellogg at the time. Pang asked him why there were so many ingredients and was told it wasn’t actually a necessity. The job of the food scientist, he was told, was to “drive really amazing taste,” so if more ingredients would do that, so be it.

The taste of food has actually been a science since at least the 1950s, when David Peryan and his colleagues began developing hedonic scaling for the U.S. Armed Forces, which wanted to know what would make food for the troops taste good. The nine-point hedonic scale indicates the average degree of liking or disliking the different tastes of food.

“So the idea is really to drive food to what they call a bliss point,” said Pang. The flavor can’t be overwhelming to the senses, he added, but “right below that, so that you want more, more …”

Food scientists also work on finding ingredients that can make the production of a product easier and faster. They also are tasked with finding ingredients that cost less.

“That’s why ingredients like high fructose corn syrup ended up in a lot of food in America. It’s like half the cost of sugar, and people can’t tell the difference,” said Pang.

But Pang is adamantly not on a crusade to end the use of products like high fructose corn syrup.

“There is nothing wrong with feeding America with a lot of these great innovations” from the food industry, he said. “But the problem is, there is a percentage of the population — that I believe is growing — that is kind of worried” about ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup.

“I think people should have a choice in the grocery stores,” he said — the ability to buy something that is free of common additives. “I’m not saying that it’s better; I’m just saying that they should have that choice,” added Pang.

In most grocery stores today, he said, there is little choice because “the big companies literally control the bulk of the business.”

The mission of Simply Eight, said Pang, is to challenge the norm.

“I said to myself, why can’t I start a company to challenge that industry? For every food that you guys make, we’ll look it up” and try to find a way to make it simpler.

The ingredients in Simply Eight foods are based on those that people typically have in their kitchens — the way food was made 50 years ago, he said.

They are mainly natural ingredients, free from artificial preservatives, artificial flavors and colors, hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, genetically modified organisms and trans fats. So far the product line is limited: cookies and chewy granola bars in two flavors: chocolate chip and peanut butter chocolate chip.

Once they had launched Simply Eight, Pang and his partners realized one of the big challenges in the food-processing business: “Buying a manufacturing facility is quite expensive, and it’s pretty high risk,” he said. So they do what many food companies do: They contract out production. Some of their product is packed in Canada, according to the box.

Pang, who left Kellogg about three years ago, works as a consultant when he’s not devoting time to Simply Eight. For marketing, they use Facebook to help keep costs down, although “it’s tough” to stand out among all the processed food on the market.

“We’ve got a long way to go, but we have a dream,” said Pang.

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