Jason Karp fondly remembers winter mornings when he was a child growing up in the Northeast and he got the good news: No school. It's a snow day.
"There was this sense of freedom, happiness, euphoria, that was just like, 'Wow, I have freedom today,'" Karp said.
A former investment fund manager, Karp is co-founder of the Hu snacking brand, and founder and CEO of HumanCo. He aims to capture that euphoric sense of freedom from his childhood with Snow Days, a new brand launch under HumanCo. The first product under the Snow Days brand is organic, gluten-free frozen pizza bites, available for direct-to-consumer purchase on the brand's website.
The better-for-you pizza bites give families the chance to recapture that feeling of freedom from responsibility — with permission to have fun, Karp said. Choosing good food to eat can be difficult. Adults spend a lot of time looking at product ingredients and Nutrition Facts, trying to weigh whether the taste and fun of a product is worth the less-than-healthy ingredients, or the way the food will make them feel after eating it.
"That vigilance and that skepticism and that paranoia — that robs you of that freedom," Karp said. "The whole point behind Snow Days is we want to let nature set you free so that you can eat these as a meal, you can feed them to your family, you can eat them as an adult, you can serve them at parties, and you don't have that feeling of regret."
Creating a snow storm
Karp started Hu, a CPG brand best known for its chocolate, and its associated New York restaurant Hu Kitchen after struggling with his own health. In his 20s, he was diagnosed with several autoimmune diseases that were tied to dietary choices. Hu was acquired by Mondelez International in January.
Karp founded HumanCo, a holding company and platform, as a separate entity in 2019. HumanCo invests in brands that espouse its values for healthier living, transparency and sustainability. Snow Days, the newest brand in that platform, brings in the dietary and value-based aspects to which Karp dedicates his business.
Snow Days' pizza bites are gluten-free, contain vegetables and functional ingredients, and have a better health profile than many other frozen snacks. The bites' shell is made of cassava. Other ingredients include not only tomato, but also carrot, sweet potato, spinach, bell pepper, apple and onion. Its cheese is grass-fed mozzarella. Organic eggs, grass-fed butter, olive oil and apple cider vinegar are also part of the recipe.
But the pizza bites don't taste full of vegetables.
"It tastes like the best pizza I've ever had," Karp, a self-described pizza lover, said.
The bites also pass the kid test, he said. His two children — picky 7 and 12 year olds — like them, as well as many other young taste testers who are children of members of the wider development team.
"My kids don't eat anything. And they devour these," Karp said. "...We are fanatical about taste because we think that's the biggest negative that consumers fear with healthier products."
The idea for Snow Days was percolating before the pandemic, but Karp said the past year has cemented the idea and accelerated the product development. He believes that families are in need of healthy and convenient food that kids will eat, especially with many adults working from home and students doing virtual school.
As a segment, frozen food has taken off during the pandemic. Dollar spend on frozen rose 21% last year compared to 2019, and almost all frozen product categories had double-digit sales increases, according to a recent report published by the American Frozen Food Institute and The Food Industry Association (FMI).
Consumers now see frozen food as healthier and fresher, Karp said — which it is, based on the processes by which it is produced and preserved. He personally knows the struggle of needing a convenient food option for kids while everyone is at home during the pandemic.
"[My kids] were basically living off of chicken nuggets and whatever we would make them," Karp said. He considers Snow Days' pizza bites as a "nutritious alternative" to the familiar frozen staple, while offering "the taste quality of indulgent pizza."
More fun still to come
While there is currently just one item under the Snow Days brand, Karp said new launches are in the pipeline. They will likely be frozen snacks, and could include pizza-related extensions and small filled dumplings. He said they will definitely be healthier versions of comfort foods that taste good but that have little nutritional value.
For now, Snow Days will solely be available on the brand's website. The pandemic has created more demand and advances in DTC sales of frozen food, Karp said. But the long-term plan is to have it eventually sold in freezer cases of grocery stores. The retail launch is currently slated for 2022, but Karp said that could be moved up to the end of 2021 based on how the DTC launch fares as well as grocery partnerships that can be made. By the time Snow Days products are sold in stores, Karp said there will be multiple offerings available.
As the first brand completely developed as part of HumanCo, Snow Days is the next big thing from Karp's larger platform. But HumanCo has two other portfolio brands: Monty's plant-based cheese and Coconut Bliss vegan ice cream. Both are undergoing rebranding and working on innovation and new products.
In December, a special purpose acquisition company co-sponsored by HumanCo and CAVU Venture Partners started trading on the NASDAQ. The SPAC, which is valued at $306 million, will eventually be used to help a company that meets HumanCo's health, wellness and sustainability values go public. It could be in the food and beverage space, like HumanCo's current holdings, as well as the platform's other defined areas: beauty and wellness or consumer health technology.
Snow Days is Karp's focus at the moment. And even through the weather is slowly warming up and fewer storms are cancelling school for a day, Karp hopes the new snack line can inspire the same amount of joy.
"It's not easy to create delicious products that perform well, that also have nutrition," Karp said, noting that much of what makes conventional finger food or pizza rolls crispy and "perform" is "modern-day science," "chemistry" and artificial ingredients.
"We think it [Snow Days] can be something that people consume for lunch, for dinner, as a snack at parties, for children, for grown-ups," Karp said. "And it's really just providing that freedom that I think particularly adults crave."