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Former Winn-Dixie executives leading nut free snack company

January 15, 2016 in

By Mark Basch, Contributing Writer

Parents of children with peanut and other nut allergies spend a lot of time poring over food labels, making sure they’re serving snacks that are free from any danger to their kids.
But it’s so much easier for them if they can just find products specifically made without nuts that could harm their children.

That’s where Skeeter Snacks LLC comes in.

Skeeter is a Jacksonville-based company marketing a line of snack foods under the Skeeter Nut Free brand for people who can’t eat foods with nuts in them.

“You can take the nuts out and you can deliver great taste,” said CEO Larry Appel.

Skeeter was actually founded in Connecticut in 2012 by two fathers of children with nut allergies.

“They said, why is there no brand that stands for a solution to the nut problem?” Appel said.

After researching the market, the two fathers — who worked in finance — decided to launch their own brand of nut free products.

“They saw there was a real opportunity here,” said Appel.

They came up with a cartoon squirrel as the company mascot, who adorns the packages, and named him Skeeter because they thought it was a “cool name,” according to the company’s website, skeeternutfree.com. Their kids also approved the name.

The snacks caught on and as the company began to grow, the founders brought in a group of executives with food industry experience to run the company. Appel, a former top executive at Jacksonville-based Winn-Dixie Stores Inc., was named CEO in May 2014.

He was joined by two other former Winn-Dixie executives, Javier Retamar as chief financial officer and Sharyla Robinson as vice president of marketing.

Another former Winn-Dixie official, Mary Kellmanson, joined Skeeter last year as acting chief merchandising officer.

With the group of former Winn-Dixie officials running the company, Jacksonville became the headquarters for Skeeter.

“I felt like Jacksonville was a place I could build a great company,” said Appel.

The headquarters off Baymeadows Road is basically a small sales and marketing office with fewer than 10 people.

Skeeter’s products are manufactured through a contract arrangement with a plant in upstate New York.

“They were already a nut free facility,” Appel said.

Skeeter’s products are slowly making their way onto grocery store shelves and are not yet available in the Jacksonville market, but the company is selling their products through other channels, including schools.

A nut free snack is very appealing in classrooms where one or more children has an allergy and can’t be exposed to nuts.

“The product was made purposely to sell into the school channel,” said Appel.

A major coup for the company was an agreement with JetBlue Airways to have Skeeter cookies offered on the airline’s flights.

Skeeter’s retail strategy includes getting its snacks into grocery stores in JetBlue’s markets, mainly in the Northeast, so potential customers who get the cookies on a flight can go find them in the store.

The cookies are available in about 1,200 stores basically between Washington, D.C., and Maine.

The private company won’t reveal its sales figures. Appel said annual sales are under $10 million but “not for long.”

He said sales tripled in 2014 and were expected to double in 2015.

Food allergies are a significant market, affecting an estimated 15 million Americans. But Skeeter stepped into a market with relatively little direct competition.

“I would say we’re much farther along than other brands,” said Appel.

Large food companies are generally reluctant to jump into a specialty market like nut free snacks, he said.

“They’re going to want somebody else to prove the concept,” he said.

Skeeter’s current products are all cookies but it is working on other nut free snacks, such as fruit roll-ups.

“We’re not a cookie company. We’re the creator of the nut free category,” Appel said.

As the company grows, it expects to continue its arrangement to have an outside vendor manufacture its products.

“We have a great co-manufacturer,” said Appel. “I don’t see us building a plant in Jacksonville anytime soon.”

However, Skeeter may be expanding its sales and marketing staff.

“We’re already looking at larger office space,” Appel said.

While you can’t buy Skeeter Nut Free snacks in Jacksonville stores yet, you can buy them online through amazon.com. But as the company grows, it may become more familiar to consumers in Jacksonville and elsewhere.

“We’re growing fast,” said Appel. “I think we’re innovators in the food space.”

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