Three years ago, when Nicky Bronner was 13, his father took away half his stash of Halloween candy. "He said it was bad for me, so I looked it up. Turns out it is just loads of junk that you don't want in your body. I told my dad he was right," he says. "It's the only time I've ever said that to him."
Nicky asked his father, serial entrepreneur and investor Michael Bronner, if it would be possible to start a business that would remake, or "unjunk," his favorite candies, without corn syrup, hydrogenated fats or artificial ingredients. He also wanted to make sure the products wouldn't be shuttled off to the health-foods sections of specialty markets; his idea was to offer candy fans better options in the same stores that stock Snickers and M&M's--and at comparable prices.
Intrigued by the potential of the $30 billion U.S. candy industry, the Bronners began contacting venture capitalists, chefs and food scientists. They landed a partner in Adam Melonas, a former chef at Spain's elBulli--widely considered the world's best restaurant before shuttering in 2011--to become head chef and chief innovation officer of Boston-based Unreal Candy.
The first time Melonas spoke with the Bronners, he was hooked. "Nicky wanted to fix a problem adults had all resigned themselves to, and we had an hourlong conversation based around finding a solution," he recalls. Soon after, Melonas relocated to the U.S. to work on product development. The process lasted 18 months, involving thousands of recipes, consumer test groups and numerous trips to source ingredients and seek out the right manufacturing facilities.
Unreal's first products included three better-for-you alternatives to established favorites: candy-coated chocolates (à la M&M's), caramel nougat bars (Milky Way) and peanut-butter cups (Reese's). All contain at least one-third less sugar and more protein and fiber than their mass-produced counterparts.
At first Melonas and the Bronners wanted to target the Millennial market, but they quickly pivoted once it became clear that parents would be better product champions. They also found massive support at retail: Unreal products are now available in approximately 25,000 locations, including CVS and Target.
They will also be stocked in more than 500 natural-foods stores by the beginning of next year.
"From a retailer's standpoint, we are a mission-based company, and what we're doing is on trend, so … everyone is onboard," Melonas says. It hasn't hurt that the company has endorsements from celebrities like Matt Damon, Gisele Bündchen and Tom Brady, as well as Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey. Unreal would not reveal revenue figures.
Nicky (who's home-schooled) says he and Melonas plan on adding more products and possibly expanding into categories beyond candy. His advice for other young entrepreneurs? "Start something that you're very passionate about," he says. "Then there's not much you can do besides work your hardest." That, truly, is the path to sweet success.