Lizanne Falsetto is not your typical underdog. She is a great cook, lives in sunny Malibu and is drop-dead gorgeous.
Yet the former fashion model -- who stands 6 feet tall in heels -- is staring up at some of the biggest players in the food industry as she tries to propel her ThinkThin snack bar to new growth at big-box retailers.
The brand, marketed as a "weight wellness" bar packed with protein and free of gluten and sugar, has already made a name for itself in the natural-foods channel. Sales grew 50% in 2012, reaching $22.4 million in the meal-replacement-bar category, putting it fifth, just ahead of Slim-Fast bars, according to Packaged Facts. And that figure likely severely understates the size of the brand because it does not include Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, where ThinkThin gets a large chunk of its distribution. (Forbes has estimated the brand's revenue at more than $70 million.)
Eyeing frozen food
Beginning this month the competition will only get tougher, as ThinkThin launches nationally at Target, where it will battle the likes of Kashi and Special K, both owned by Kellogg, and Nature Valley and Larabar, both controlled by General Mills. Ms. Falsetto, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based company's founder and CEO, is even taking on candy giants like Hershey and Mars with the recent launch of chocolate-covered bars branded "Divine." Long-term, she is eyeing an entry into frozen food.
What Ms. Falsetto lacks in ad dollars, she makes up for in moxie. Big companies "have a lot of money," she said. "They can buy the space, they can buy the advertisement. But do they have the guts of the product? That's what I question."
By "guts" she means ingredients. The brand's "high protein" bars have 20 grams of protein but no sugar or gluten; the "crunch" bars are packed with nuts and fruit and are marketed as kosher and gluten- and dairy-free; and the "divine" bars come in flavors like German chocolate coconut have only 10 grams of sugar.
Pulled out the junk
Ms. Falsetto, 50, was born and raised in a large Italian family in Seattle and came up with the product idea during a 14-year modeling career abroad, where she worked for designers such as Donna Karan and lived in fashion capitals including Tokyo, Paris and Milan. "It was very difficult to find food I could eat on the go," she said. "There was nothing that was healthy for you."
So when she returned to the states in the early 1990s she began tinkering in the kitchen, creating early versions of what became the ThinkThin bar. "I took Grandma's recipes and just pulled out the junk," she said. When she took her creations to modeling events, her colleagues demanded more. After a few years of tinkering and networking with food experts, she finalized the product.
Then came the hard part: pitching it to retailers. She sent samples to "everybody under the sun."
She got the ear of a female corporate buyer at Trader Joe's in 1999 who foresaw the bar category growing into the behemoth that it is today. She worked her way into Whole Foods stores in the mid-Atlantic region, where ThinkThin sales grew in part to the continuing low-carb trend. "It was the 'natural' of the Atkins world," she said. Other Whole Foods regions noticed and took the brand on.
Armed with climbing sales figures, her company persuaded Target to test the bars regionally earlier this year at 300 stores. ThinkThin performed well enough to meet the chain's threshold for a national launch, which will begin in June. (The brand is also in select Walmarts and regional grocery chains.)
The brand's marketing relies on PR, events, sampling, digital and "hyper-targeted" advertising. Agencies are Saeger Media Group for PR, social and digital; Bright Design for brand creative and package design; and NRG for sampling and events.
One recent TV spot that aired in California features Ms. Falsetto describing the bar as "deliciously natural nutrition that you can take with you anytime, anywhere." That could describe a number of brands in the snack-bar category, which grew 6% last year to $5.9 billion, according to Euromonitor International. Some of the strongest growth is coming in the "natural and specialty bar" subcategory, where sales surged by 14.3% in the year ending March 16, according to Spins, which tracks the natural-, organic- and specialty-product industry.
Natural competitors to ThinkThin include Larabar and privately held Clif Bar & Co., which makes Clif and Luna bars and whose total snack bar sales of $600 million last year trailed only General Mills ($1.5 billion) and Kellogg ($1.3 billion), according to Euromonitor. Another bar company making waves is 10-year-old Kind Healthy Snacks, which makes whole nut and fruit bars and whose marketing mantra is to be "kind to your body, your taste buds and the world." The founder, Daniel Lubetzky, is the son of a Holocaust survivor and was raised in Mexico City.
Glitz and guts
ThinkThin is trying to carve out a niche by touting its bars as having low or no sugar. A key ingredient is maltitol, a sweetener made from sugar alcohol. While ThinkThin describes it as having fewer calories than regular sugar, it has been criticized in some quarters for causing digestive issues. Referring to those potential side effects on its website, the brand says "sensitivity to maltitol is individual."
Seeking to get ahead of the next big health trend, the brand recently converted its "crunch" bars to non-genetically modified ingredients, while putting them in see-through packaging. That move wasurred by Whole Foods' recent pledge to require GMO labeling by 2018 for all products in its stores.
ThinkThin is as much about glitz as guts. As a premium brand, it seeks buzz at exclusive events like the Emmys, where it sponsored a pre-party last year hosted by Jeffrey Katzenberg. At the event, a model made the rounds wearing a dress made of bar wrappers, a brand spokeswoman said. ThinkThin also has gotten placement in gift bags for contestants on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."
Ever the fashion maven, Ms. Falsetto described her creation as "the Louis Vuitton of the bar category."
She would know.