Kevin McCarthy became CEO in 2016 and since then has had a laser focus on growing the brand in a sustainable way.

How Unreal Foods plans to be a relevant better-for-you brand for the long haul

Permission granted by Unreal Foods

When Kevin McCarthy joined Unreal Foods in 2014, the brand was a scrappy team of four.

Today, the candy and confectionery company has 40 employees and continues to grow its team. 

Originally launched in 2011, Unreal makes better-for-you chocolate snacks with whole ingredients, no artificial additives and less sugar than conventional candy products. But the company grew quickly and tried to scale too fast. 

“There was some misalignment between consumer targets, brand and product, and it was just trying to do too many things at once,” said McCarthy in an interview with Food Dive.

Unreal shut down and then restarted in 2014, and that’s when McCarthy joined as operations manager.  

McCarthy wore many hats at first when he started at the company — finance, accounting, operations, sales and marketing — really just whatever needed to get done, he said. In 2016, the board asked him to become CEO.

“The candy and confectionery aisle is one of the most messed up ones in the grocery store, and we are really hoping to push this category in a positive direction,” said McCarthy.

Food trends tend to go “up and down, and left and right,” especially in a category that touches sugar, and Unreal is hoping to create products that can “stand the test of time,” McCarthy said.  “We always want to serve the consumer — today, 10 years from now and 30 years from now.”

Multiple recent studies have pointed to consumers becoming hyper-aware of ingredient quality. Experts say the trend is putting smaller, health-focused, niche CPGs that specialize in the better-for-you products, in a position for growth. 

Larger CPGs also are working to capitalize on the trend. WK Kellogg Co., for example, started 2024 by announcing a new vegan cereal brand, Eat Your Mouth Off, Mars announced a $237 million factory for The Nature’s Bakery and General Mills’ Yoplait brand launched a protein line. 

But smaller CPGs, such as Unreal, Meati Foods and Owyn, already are aligned with the better-for-you trend and can innovate in harmony with changing consumer demands. The brands provide consumers with a certain sense of authenticity. 

McCarthy said that Unreal always has been committed to providing consumers with a less-sugar option for treats they love. 

“A lot of brands really dove into the Keto craze, and zero sugar, and those things are great for some people, but that’s not us,” said McCarthy. “We’re providing confection options that have less sugar, but we’re not focused on any specific diet or trend. We’re really just trying to take products that people are familiar with and making them better.”

A better-for-you brand from the beginning

The confectionery industry has recently come under fire for the use of food additives, such as Red Dye 03, brominated vegetable oil (BVO), potassium bromate and propylparaben. With an increasing number of states introducing legislation restricting foods containing any of the four additives, some confectioneries are rethinking the ingredients of their products.

“We’ve only used natural colors since day one,” said McCarthy. The company uses fruits and vegetables to make its treats take on fun colors like purple and blue. 

“It’s something we believe in and we want to show other brands that it can be done,” he said. “It’s not easy. It can be challenging in many different aspects.” 

For Unreal, the use of natural dyes has been an important component of the brand from day one, and not because of an emerging trend. 

“Our hope is that consumers see UNREAL as a brand that’s not only offering them a way-healthier option in a way that’s joyous and almost-shockingly-delicious but also as a leader driving the conversation forward towards a better-for-you future,” said Ann Bumpus, director of brand marketing, in a statement to Food Dive. 

In terms of the future of the confectionery industry, McCarthy said, “The most important thing is to be open and to be listening to the consumer and considering better ways in order to embrace that consumer voice.”

Innovation: slow and steady

“Kevin keeps the big picture in mind when navigating challenges. For example, the R&D process for our new Chocolate Covered Pretzels was not simple,” said Bumpus. “Instead of jumping on fast-track, possible-solutions, Kevin was key in helping us step back and commit to the right thing for our brand.”

 Bumpus started with Unreal in 2017 executing demos as part of a part-time summer job. From her first day, she has spent a lot of time working closely with McCarthy.

When it comes to how Unreal thinks of product innovation, McCarthy said the company has learned the importance of taking a thorough and thoughtful approach to product innovation and growth. He added that the company always looks to create products that will withstand the test of time in the industry.

It took Unreal two years to learn how to make grain-free pretzels up to its standards. Bumpus said the company traded in a slower-than-ideal timeline for better quality products. 

“Kevin has a vision for where the company and the confectionery industry will be in 10+ years and how UNREAL will continue to lead the conversation,” said Bumpus

Unreal recently launched four new products: both milk and dark chocolate-covered grain-free pretzels, dark chocolate-covered almonds and dark chocolate-covered almonds with coconut. 

“This is a shift for us, to more indulgent snacking versus indulgent candy forms,” said McCarthy. “This was a move to better serve our core consumer throughout their day and at a different consumption occasion. 

As McCarththy thinks about the future of Unreal, he said his focus lies in continuing to make sure people know what Unreal is, and why the brand exists. “Regardless of what state you live in, and what your state may be banning or not, we’re not going anywhere.”

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