business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

"Kate's Take" is brought to you by Wholesome Sweeteners, Making The World a Sweeter Place.

To any parent of a child with nut allergies, Halloween is a potential nightmare. Ditto birthday parties, school lunches and team snack times.

College buddies Dave Leyrer and Pete Najarian, who each have a child with life-threatening nut allergies, decided to do something about it last year.

The pair founded Skeeter Snacks, a line of cookies and snacks made specifically for those with tree nut and peanut allergies. Frustrated by difficult-to-decipher labels, their goal was to create an affordable, tasty product that was clearly nut-free.

Eighteen months later, they are clearly on the road to success. Skeeter Snacks now are available on and in 2,000 stores nationwide, including Walmart, ShopRite, Costco, CVS, Toys-R-Us, Market Basket, Roche Bros., Hannaford and Walgreens. (Sales figures were not available for the privately held company based in Westport, CT.)

And the product is clearly meeting a need. Peanut and tree nut allergies are the most common, the fastest growing and among the most dangerous and permanent of allergies. In 1997 an estimated 0.6% of children in America had a peanut or tree allergy. That number has skyrocketed to 3.1% of children in 2013, representing 38% of all allergies. “Nut-free” is becoming the norm in many elementary schools.

For Skeeter Snacks, the business challenge was marketing the product as a great tasting treat for everyone, not a pricey item for “allergic” people that tastes more like cardboard than a cookie.

Enter a quirky, recognizable mascot in Skeeter, billed as the world’s only squirrel with a nut allergy, and a multi-faceted social media marketing campaign. Laurie Witt, the firm’s marketing director, tells MNB that Facebook and Pinterest are the platform of choice in terms of increasing market awareness and ultimately driving sales, including the Store Locator option.

I went with that option and first attempted to buy the product at the nearest Walmart, where it was sold out. Struck out at the next ShopRite, illustrating the downside of store locator guidance. But the third try was the charm at Toys-R-Us, where I purchased an 8-ounce box of Chocolate Chip Minis and Cinnamon Grahams for $3.99 each – labeled totally-nut-free, all-natural, whole grain, no trans-fat and no high fructose corn syrup. An informal tasting panel by the Connelly Kids (my neighbors) – the target market at ages 8, 12 and 14, none with allergies – gave a general thumbs up on taste, with two of three preferring the chocolate chip.

Skeeter Snacks has also launched an innovative “No Nuts About It” Pin It to Win It campaign on Pinterest, the rapidly-growing content sharing service that allows members to "pin" images, videos and other objects to their pinboard. (I’m a new user on Pinterest, which was founded three years ago and is now valued at a whopping $3.8 billion.) The campaign encourages participation through weekly incentives and integrates all of the company’s social media sites.

Beyond the numbers, the two dads said they hoped to create a product with wider appeal, so that the kids with allergies wouldn’t feel excluded, yet again, packing their personal “safe snack” for seemingly every occasion.

I get that. On a personal note, I am very allergic to shellfish, and my daughters are moderately allergic, so we all have Epi-pens, question ingredients, scrutinize sushi and even have our dinners cooked separately at a group hibachi restaurant. However, managing a shellfish allergy seems but an inconvenience compared to the constant worry and due diligence that kids and parents with nut allergies face on a daily basis.

So in the spirit of a safe and happy Halloween for all, I’ll be handing out Skeeters tomorrow night.

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