Can an Organic Chip Company Survive the Snack Aisle’s Street Fight?
But that determination to remain independent may mean leaving big money on the table. Last year Coca-Cola completed a purchase of Honest Tea worth an estimated $80 million, and in 2006, PepsiCo paid $250 million for Stacy’s Pita Chips, a natural-snack-food company whose former owner, Stacy Madison, calls herself a huge fan of Late July. And even Food Should Taste Good, Late July’s local competition that boasts so many of the same do-gooder credentials, was recently sold, getting snapped up in March by food giant General Mills for an undisclosed sum. “I’m happy for them, if it’s what they wanted,” Dawes says of that sale. “It’s one of those things that, obviously, I’ve thought a lot about. Sometimes people have trouble believing that the little guy can’t make it without the big guy. Maybe we can’t, but I’m not going to give up that dream.”
Gary Hirshberg, the founder of organic-yogurt company Stonyfield Farm, which was purchased by Grupo Danone a decade ago, has used his seat on the Late July board to strongly advise Dawes against taking in institutional capital for as long as possible. That’s the best way to keep her mission intact, he says, and the ownership stakes undiluted. Then again, Dawes is “brutally pragmatic,” Hirschberg says. “There is a whole lot of money being thrown at entrepreneurs now,” he says. “They recognize that wellness, and organic in particular, is a growth area.”
Madison may have sold her pita-chip company, but she believes Dawes and Late July have what it takes to keep the brand growing independently. “She has the believability,” Madison says. Big brands are making themselves leaner and greener, “but people in the mass market are still looking for the real deal. There’s more truth to it when it’s something they’ve always been doing instead of someone cleaning up their act.”
The truth for Dawes seems to be that, whatever the money at stake, her business remains very personal. “My dad died of cancer,” she says, adding that some experts believe that switching to an all-organic diet is one of the best ways a person can prevent the disease. “So knowing that, and knowing what would go into my products if I chose a more mainstream, pervasive way — is that something I really want to profit from, to build my business around? No. Especially if I know I can do it this way, even if I know it’s going to take a little bit longer.”