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A sweet venture

Boston chocolate start-up isn’t your average family company

(jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Gail Waterhouse
Globe Correspondent / June 22, 2012
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Michael Bronner’s son Nick loves candy. So much that the well-known entrepreneur started a candy company with his son, but one with a twist: it would not make chocolates with common junk food ingredients such as corn syrup and unhealthy oils.

“We were trying to answer the question, “Could you remove the junk from junk food and still have it taste as good?” Bronner said.

Now the Boston-based company, Unreal Brands, is launching its first five products, to be distributed in major retail chains such as CVS stores next month and has also lined up a prominent investor to help it expand on a national scale, Raptor Consumer Partners, the private equity company of local hedge fund legend James Pallotta.

“I knew it was a really big idea, and a rather audacious one at that, but it wasn’t until I really tasted the product that I got over the top,” said John Burns, managing director of Raptor Capital Partners.

Bronner himself brings serious entrepreneurial credentials to the candy business. He founded digital advertising agency Digitas, which was sold in 2000 for more than $1 billion, and then UPromise, the college savings program, which he sold to Sallie Mae Corp. in 2006 for more $300 million.

The candy company remains a family affair. Nicky Bronner, now 15, and his older brother Kristopher, 18, conducted much of the research into candy development themselves and found Adam Melonas, a chef in Spain who came to the United States and helped developed recipes. Meanwhile Michael Bronner tapped more industry talent, recruiting Carlos Canals, then-chief executive of Tribe, the Taunton-based hummus company, to become Unreal Brands president.

And as if that firepower was not enough, Bronner has gotten well-known Boston celebrities, including Tom Brady and his supermodel wife Giselle Bundchen, to promote Unreal Brand candies through Twitter when the products hit the stores.

Unreal Brands has four main types of “unjunked” candies: a coated chocolate disc similar to M&Ms, chocolate caramel nougat bars that echo a Milky Way, another one with caramel, nougat, and peanuts reminiscent of a Snickers bar, and a chocolate peanut butter cup similar to Reese’s. But Unreal’s versions of those treats do have no artificial ingredients or preservatives, no hydrogenated oils, and no corn syrup, and they have fewer calories and less fat and sugar.

David Sprinkle, publisher of food and beverage market research company Packaged Facts in Maryland, said that while it might be difficult to go head-to-head with industry giants, more consumers are looking for what they consider to be healthier foods.

“Consumers are definitely looking to eat healthier, and a lot of that is in terms of looking at foods with lower fats and lower sugar, better quality ingredients,” he said.

The sweetness in Unreal Brand’s candy bars is more muted than the mass marketed versions, with richer-tasting ingredients and a stronger cocoa taste in the chocolate.

“Does it taste like an M&M? Not at all,” said Christine Ashworth, the candy buyer for BJ’s Wholesale Club. “But they really deliver on taste.”

The Westborough-based membership retail warehouse will start selling Unreal Brand’s plain and peanut candy-coated chocolates, modeled off of M&Ms, in mid-August.

Bronner expects that by the end of the summer, Unreal will have a presence in 30,000 retail locations, including Staples and BJ’s, as well as national grocer Kroger.

And here’s another treat: though it has all the trappings of a boutique food, Unreal candies will cost about the same as their rivals: at CVS, a single package of peanut butter cups will cost $1.19, and at BJ’s, an oversized 19 ounce bag of candies is priced at $5.99.

Bronner said he was driven to create “unjunked” alternatives to candy to to help people become more aware of the food they eat by offering better choices.

“If I’m going into my local convenience store in middle America, what are my choices? I want to know how I can make better choices that taste as good and don’t cost me more money.”

Gail Waterhouse can be reached at gail.waterhouse@globe.com.

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