Have you ever heard of the saying, ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade?’
Well, that’s exactly what Diana Levy, CEO of Undercover Snacks (Undercover), did in the face of adversity. When two of her three chocolate-obsessed daughters were diagnosed with Celiac disease in 2016, Diana was determined to use her chocolatier skills to create gluten-free, chocolate snacks that all three of her daughters could enjoy. And so, Undercover was born and launched its delicious chocolate quinoa crisps! But Diana could never have predicted what would happen next.
“I was initially making small batches by hand, when I quickly got the product into a single Whole Foods store in New Jersey,” Diana begins. “I was demoing the product in the store when the region’s management team came in, saw how well the product was selling, and authorized it to be sold in all Whole Foods stores throughout the Northeast.
“I then had numerous conversations with other retailers and some huge opportunities presented themselves, but I needed to manufacture large quantities in very little time,” she continues. “It turned out that although our products were straight-forward to manufacture in small batches by hand, I needed very specialized equipment and processes in order to scale up production.
With little support and limited production capabilities, Diana lost out on these early opportunities, but she remained determined to succeed. “I ended up flying around the world by myself to attend manufacturing trade shows, in order to figure out the best way to design an efficient production line,” she recalls. “While it was initially difficult to get the attention of manufacturers in a male-dominated industry where I did not yet have a foothold, I eventually succeeded.”
Diana goes on: “I kept showing up and eventually one person sat down with me – just one, but it just so happened to be the right one. It was at this point that my husband entered the business, and we gathered the resources to build our own facility. So, I went from a small, 2000-square-foot commercial kitchen in 2017, to a 12,000-square-foot state-of-the-art manufacturing facility capable of producing large volumes of quinoa crisps by mid-2018!”
Today, Undercover’s facilities span 50,000 square feet and the business supplies around 20,000 retail stores across the US with chocolate quinoa crisps. Its main retailers are Whole Foods, Kroger, Albertsons, Walmart, and CVS, but it has also participated in multiple Costco rotations and is preparing to go enterprise-wide in Target in the spring of 2023.
With the inspiration behind Diana’s products being her daughters’ health condition, she had a personal interest and passion to create a risk-free product. “I was very conscious to design a product that could be enjoyed by all kinds of people, including those with food allergies or sensitivities,” she explains. “We had this unique opportunity to establish our factory as free from peanuts, tree nuts, and most other major allergens, so that’s what we did.” This means Undercover’s products are gluten-free, nut-free, and Halal, Kosher, and Non-GMO certified.
Aside from its retail operations, Undercover recently won a huge, impressive contract to be the complimentary snack onboard all United Airlines’ flights. “Our products have been in United Airlines’ snack boxes since September 2021, and we are now extremely excited to have been chosen as the airline’s new complimentary snack in economy class,” Diana exclaims. “United Airlines is now purchasing and distributing millions of units from us each month, which provides incredible trial and brand awareness for Undercover. It means that
United Airline’s passengers have the option to choose a phenomenally delicious, gluten-free, and allergen friendly snack, so this is a truly game-changing opportunity for us!”
So, what does Undercover’s core offering consist of, and how it is made? Chocolate quinoa crisps are a layer of crunchy, toasted quinoa lightly covered with Rainforest Alliance certified chocolate. Having catapulted the business into its tremendous growth period, chocolate quinoa crisps are available as standard two-ounce bags, 13-ounce club-sized bags, or individually wrapped, as well as through a monthly or bi-monthly subscription program.
“It’s truly a unique product because of its wildly crispy texture and simple ingredients,” Diana states. “There is nothing comparable to our product currently on the market. This is largely because quinoa is not technically a grain, it’s considered a pseudo-grain, meaning that it falls in the category of seeds and is a complete protein. We cook the quinoa at a high temperature without using oil, and it is toasted, not extruded, meaning the natural fiber, protein, and nutrients are retained.”
She continues: “It is then lightly covered in premium milk or dark chocolate. It’s important to me that our chocolate is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, thereby ensuring fair wages for farmers and sustainable growing practices are in place. The final step of the process is adding one or two simple ingredients, like real dried fruit to differentiate the flavors.”
The product range currently features flavors such as chocolate sea salt, pomegranate, and blueberry. “Really, we have one core product that we adapt to suit different occasions and varieties,” Diana adds. “We occasionally create exclusive flavors for specific stores, as well as seasonal flavors, like pumpkin spice during Fall, and dark chocolate peppermint for the holidays.
“My personal favorite is the plain milk chocolate crisps, but it changes every so often,” she laughs. “It sounds silly because it’s my product and I eat it all the time, but some days I genuinely can’t stop eating them! I got to try our new milk chocolate and cherry flavor yesterday and it’s so good that I was honestly eating them all day.”
A flyaway success
The company’s exponential growth since its inception has transformed the business from Diana’s passion, into a fully-fledged family effort. “One of our daughters is very passionate about Undercover and has been heavily involved since the beginning, now working full time as our Marketing Manager, and the other two work as brand ambassadors,” Diana explains. “I don’t think I could ever do this without my husband, as it is an intense, emotional rollercoaster, but together, we are on the adventure of a lifetime!”
Turning to the future, Diana reveals: “You can expect new flavors of quinoa crisps in 2023, as well as the possibility of a brand-new product launching in the latter half of the year. However, there is still a lot of scope for expansion in the US and I think there will be more retail placement opportunities for us to expand in the US market. I also think that once we fully launch as the complimentary snack onboard United Airlines and as more people try the product, the sales in our existing retail stores will take off even further!
“Expansion into international markets will then naturally evolve, and we are particularly keen to continue expanding the business in Canada,” she concludes. “Overall, although we are focusing on building our retail sales at the moment, we are also researching other innovative, unique snacks and have a couple of ideas up our sleeve for the not-too-distant future!”