Calbee North America: Poised to Get Even Tastier

The corporate identity “Calbee North America” has only existed since 2010, but the road that led to its inception took place over half a century. Calbee North America’s parent company, Calbee Foods Co, was founded in Tokyo, Japan, in 1949, and is the second-largest snack food company in the world behind Frito-Lay. Slowly expanding its presence in America since 1970, the latest iteration of Calbee’s U.S. business is about to grow exponentially.

In preparation, Calbee North America has been ramping up its research and development and has created an extensive sales-and-marketing department, all in anticipation of massive product line expansion and continental growth thanks in part to a newly formed joint venture with PepsiCo, Inc. An essential element driving the company’s new push is its president Gene Jensen, who brings 23 years experience at Frito-Lay to the company.

A Natural Progression

Prior to the current Calbee North America initiatives, Calbee Foods Co. first had to enter the U.S. market, which it did in 1970 with the founding of its stateside subsidiary Calbee America. After 20 years, what was initially an import operation grew to incorporate local production through a business alliance with Snack King in 1990. A decade later, Calbee America opened a facility in Sonoma County, Calif., with the goal to improve quality through use of local ingredients.

With business steady, Calbee America joined forces in 2006 with the largest potato producer in the world, the R.D. Offutt Company (RDO), founded in North Dakota in 1964. Calbee America and RDO created a joint plant in Boardman, Ore., to source potato for snack food products in Japan and other markets. Calbee America also built a new production facility in Fairfield, Calif. – its first Calbee-owned plant in North America – from where it currently produces its products for the U.S. market.

Calbee North America currently manufactures two extremely well-loved crispy, crunchy, “healthier for you” packaged snack options: Snapea Crisps (dried snap peas available in original and Caesar salad dressing flavors) and Shrimp Chips, but that number is set to rise exponentially in the next several years. This is in part thanks to a new sales and marketing enterprise led by Steve Kneepkens, vice president of the sales and marketing team, who came to Calbee North America from Daymon Worldwide, the largest brokerage firm for private brands in the world. Kneepkens says, “I can tell you that we are heavily, heavily investing in R&D. [In 2013] we will have a number of new vegetable-based healthier-for-you snacks.”

With the size of Calbee North America’s operation more than doubled from what it was last year (e.g., employees have increased from 50 up to 100), and with substantial capital ($31 million) and expertise brought to the table by PepsiCo., the company is ready to expand. In late spring of 2013 the U.S. will be introduced to Jagabee, the wildly popular potato-based snack that Calbee has been manufacturing in Japan since 2006. In anticipation of bringing Jagabee to the U.S. market, Calbee North America has tacked an additional 25,000 square feet onto its plant in Boardman, Ore., to increase production of potato products domestically for distribution throughout North America (previously potatoes were shipped to Japan, processed, and distributed back). This is just one of up to 15 new vegetable-based snack products and iterations of longtime favorites that will be introduced.

A Healthier Snack Food

Calbee North America is well-positioned to expand, because Snapea is experiencing tremendous success. “I can tell you that 99 percent of the feedback [we get on Snapea] is positive,” says Kneepkens, who adds, “We answer every inquiry personally.” Kneepkens has been in the food industry for over 15 years and says that he’s never seen anything like Snapea and its fan base.

Calbee’s tagline is “harness the power of nature,” and each product, says Kneepkens, “Has to be tasty, has to be natural and it has to be healthier for you [than other snack foods].” The Snapea product is high in the recommended daily amount of fiber (eight percent) and protein (17 percent), which makes it “… a great alternative to a lot of what’s out there,” says Kneepkens. Plus, it’s delicious. “I don’t care how nutritious something is, if it doesn’t taste good, people aren’t going to eat it,” recognizes Kneepkens.

Nutritional profile of its products has always been important to Calbee. As a matter of fact, that is how Calbee got its name: “Cal” for calcium and “bee” for Vitamin B. “The Calbee name itself was derived post-WWII Japan, when the people were suffering terribly from the effects of war and the atomic bomb,” explains Kneepkens.

“The gentleman that started the company wanted to provide nutritious snacks for the people that were suffering in Japan,” continues Kneepkens. “Calcium and Vitamin B were two nutrients that people were lacking most.” The Snapea snack – made from sun-dried snap peas, which provide a snack high in iron – is known as “Saya” in Japan.

Aiming to Please

The Calbee company’s attitude toward production can be summed up with the simple saying: Put good in, get good out. “We buy the finest peas,” promises Kneepkens. “And we are big believers in strategic partners [i.e. suppliers]. We do not flip or change partners based on lowest cost. Getting the finest quality product for a good value is our driver.”

Calbee products rarely have more than six ingredients, each essential to showcase the finest, most satisfying flavor. With quality most important, the end product is so tasty that Calbee North America relies primarily on in-store promotions and sampling in order to grab new customers by the tongue. “If we can get it into their hands, eight out of 10 times they’ll buy it,” says Kneepkens. “Furthermore, 80 percent of people who try our product become repeat buyers.”

Calbee North America is excited about the upcoming changes on the horizon: product expansion, distribution expansion, growth. “The consumer has spoken,” says Kneepkens. “They want more flavors, more products, and more convenience [in buying].” Most of Kneepkens’ career has been international in scope; he’s been based out of London, Paris, Johannesburg and Taipei, so he has the perspective to know how rare it is to find a food product that is truly delicious and much healthier than other convenient snack foods.

“I’ve been to every continent that has a retailer on it … and I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says of Snapea specifically. And as Calbee North America broadens its strategic partnerships and portfolio to manufacture increasingly nutritious and tasty snacks for the U.S. market, thankfully, there should be more like Snapea soon.