Meet Neil Thomson, Naked Snacks - BC Marketplace

If you made a list of the products that seem tailormade for pandemic life, snacks would surely have to be near the top. Working from home, binge-watching TV, comfort eating, and just lounging on the couch has unsurprisingly led to a surge in snacking.

If you’re a health-conscious snacker who doesn’t want to sacrifice taste, Neil Thomson of Richmond’s Naked Snacks has your back. In fact, Neil started Naked Snacks with his wife Ryley to solve the health vs taste snack conundrum—initially just for himself. We asked the man who admits he didn’t know what a walnut looked like before jumping into the food business how—and why—he cracked the healthy snacking market.

What’s your business all about?

We are all about making it as easy as possible for people to make healthy snack choices. We want people to feel that it’s absolutely fine to have some dark chocolate with your snack, or some yogurt chips, sriracha, or other spices. We’ve found that balance. We’re not trying to be the healthiest food choice in the world; we’re saying to people who might make bad snack choices more often than they’d like to, “You don’t need to compromise at all. You can trust us. We’re offering you the healthy balance that you’re looking for.”

During product development, we came up with our nutritional philosophy—what we call “80/20.” Basically, our nutritional promise is that 80% of the food anyone buys from us is completely unprocessed, wholesome goodness. Then, in order to inject some fun and recognize the balance that comes along with food choices, we put in 20% of an indulgence, or 20% fun.

What’s the story behind Naked Snacks?

It started with me wanting to make better food choices. When I looked out at the market and the different healthy food options, I didn’t see products that were particularly delicious. And of the products I saw, I didn’t feel like the branding appealed to me. For the most part, it felt like healthy eating was a category that was a little bit stuffy, and maybe at times a bit preachy—telling people how they have to eat. So, we set out to just say, “Hey, we’re not gonna tell anybody what to do. We’re just going to make healthy eating as delicious, fun, and easy as possible.” We started developing some products, working on the brand, and figuring out what our messaging and positioning would be. While we were going through the product development, we landed on our “80/20” nutritional philosophy.

What are some of your most popular products?

A savoury snack almost everyone loves is called Hearty Tamari, which contains sesame sticks, spicy pretzels, almonds, and cashews. Then there’s Wasabi-me, which is one I’m not over the moon about because I don’t generally handle Wasabi very well. But anyone who likes Wasabi can’t get enough of it. Different snacks sell well for different reasons.

So, what’s your favorite snack if you had to choose one?

I like the Sriracha Cashews the most. I just love the sriracha flavour, and the way the sriracha sauce complements the creamy cashews.

How do you come up with your flavours and mixes?

To be honest, it’s a lot of trial and error. We make a lot of mistakes and land on some flavours that are not that amazing, which is part of the creative process. We go through at least four or five rounds of tasting and iterations with an internal focus group. Then we’ll expand it and open it up for other folks to try and give us feedback on. We try to offer folks interesting flavour profiles, things that are new and that are going to blow their minds and make them feel like they discovered something different when it comes to healthy eating. When that happens, that’s our reward.

How can people buy your products?

We are available through a couple of channels. Ordering online is easy, and we’re in most of the major grocery stores in the Lower Mainland—IGA, Save on Foods, Whole Food, Nesters Market, etc. If anyone is in a store and they don’t see us then then they should absolutely ask the store manager to bring us in. For customers who are further afield, like Northern BC, that’s why we built the ecommerce side of the business.

How has business been recently?

It’s definitely been an interesting year. Before the pandemic, our ecommerce business was about 20-30% of our sales. Since the pandemic kicked in, we’re now 50% ecommerce, and folks are buying a lot more than they used to. I think it’s just a function of everyone being at home, sitting on the couch, and ordering food to the house. We’ve tried to stay really responsive to what our customers are looking for. A benefit of being a small business is that we stay as close as we possibly can to our customers. We encourage everyone to tell us what they’re looking for as often as possible. Throughout the pandemic, I think because everyone’s having such a tough time, or everyone’s finding it more difficult connecting with friends and family and colleagues and things, we have had a lot of folks wanting to use our gifting service. There’s something about healthy and delicious food showing up that also kind of says, “I really care about you. I’m thinking about you. I care about your health and well-being.” It’s awesome to be a part of that.

Why do you think it’s so important for people to keep supporting small businesses?

Small businesses are where the magic is, in my mind. I think they try to innovate and do things that are interesting and trendsetting. With bigger businesses, once they reach a certain size they know what’s working and what isn’t, and they kind of double down on those things that are working. They’re maybe less likely to take chances and sort of put themselves out there as much as they would if they were a small business. I love the way that all the small business partners we work with are looking to do something that’s really new and creative. They’re willing to take those risks and take those chances. For me, it’s exciting. If people didn’t support small businesses, I think the world would be a much less interesting place.

Seeing other small businesses be successful can also give people permission to dream and to think, “I can start a business and I can do something that’s really exciting and creative.” The more folks think like that and feel like that, then you kind of get into the ripple effect of job creation, and the economy expanding, and everything else. I do think small businesses really are the engine room of the economy, certainly the local economy.

Do you have any favourite small businesses in B.C.?

I stay pretty close to the sector to be honest, as there’s nothing in the world that gives me more joy than eating. The food category in Vancouver is amazing. I think of us as this creative kind of melting pot of amazing, mostly health-focused food and beverage companies.

There’s a gelato company in town that I love called Uno Gelato. The founder is a wonderful dude who I know, and we’re about to do a promotion with them. They have a salted caramel gelato in particular, which is mind-blowing. Another company I really like is Wize Coffee Leaf. They make a coffee leaf tea, and they just came up with an iced tea in a can. The sustainability benefits attached to their products are super interesting. For parts of the year when coffee isn’t harvested, the trees are unproductive and just kind of sitting there. Harvesting the leaves to use them for tea helps provide employment year-round. No-one’s really done this before, so they’re making something awesome that they’re bringing to consumers.

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