On a hot day last May as the school year was winding down, the nutrition chief in the state’s largest school district put something on the school lunch menu that fit the rules and met student demands.
It was a JonnyPops frozen treat.
“Rules are strict on a school lunch menu,” said Noah Atlas, director of child nutrition at Anoka Hennepin district. “But at the students’ request, we wanted to try a new initiative — a healthy snack once a week.”
This fall, the district, which has 38,000 students, is regularly putting JonnyPops on the menu for elementary students and offering them as an a la carte item for secondary students. “The students kept saying how much they liked it,” Atlas said.
The foray into schools is a new turn for JonnyPops, the suburban Minneapolis food company that was started in 2011 by some St. Olaf College students who created what they called a “smoothie on a stick.” They used real fruit, cream and cane sugar and kept out dyes, preservatives and artificial flavoring. They gave it the name JonnyPops and first approached outlets like Kowalski’s to sell it. By 2014, they were getting into all the big grocery sellers in the region, like Cub Foods, Target, Lunds & Byerly’s and even Costco.
But the young entrepreneurs quickly saw that as temperatures began to fall, so did their sales.
“Our fall and winter business is about 60 to 70 percent of what it is in the summer, so the schools are an offseason growth strategy for JonnyPops,” said Connor Wray, 24, chief financial officer and one of its four founders. “We see it as our single biggest growth opportunity.”
Adding schools keeps the JonnyPops staff and plant in St. Louis Park running in the slow season. Without the school business, staff might have to be furloughed, making it more difficult to keep good employees and potentially adding to the cost of training new ones.
This is the second year JonnyPops has reached out to schools, and the company is building on a successful introduction in a handful of districts last year, including Minneapolis. It sold more than 500,000 fruit bars through schools during the last academic year and hopes to double that in the one that just started after making deals with Minnesota’s 10 largest districts.
Shakopee Public Schools are putting JonnyPops on the menu every six weeks this year. More than 90 percent of the students who were offered the treat last year chose it, said Deb Ross-Coen, manager of nutritional services in Shakopee Public Schools.
“I like to jump on the bandwagon when it’s a healthier treat,” Ross-Coen said. “JonnyPops have a clean label that’s not too high in fat, and only 10 grams of sugar.”
Bertrand Weber, director of culinary and wellness services for Minneapolis Public Schools, does not call JonnyPops a health food. “It’s hard to describe desserts as healthy, but they can be wholesome,” he said. “Heavy cream isn’t necessarily healthy, but you’re making it with real ingredients — one-eighth cup real fruit, sugar and cream.”
To meet federal nutrition guidelines, the company downsized the treat from the 78-gram, 160-calorie version it sells in stores. It also reduced the saturated fat to make a version with 50 calories and less than 10 grams of carbohydrates. The larger, store-bought version is 13 to 18 grams of carbs. Currently, the school version comes in strawberry banana. Mixed berry will be introduced next month.
The smaller version also means the company charges schools less than it does in stores, where a box of three costs $4 to $6. With education budgets tight and menus highly controlled, JonnyPops is still a relatively pricey item for schools. “Snacks got kicked out of schools, but we made our product work with a miniature version that hit the school’s price point,” Wray said. “It’s a break-even for us.”
The founders are willing to forgo schools as a profit center because they see students as megaphones to increase the number of satisfied customers who know about JonnyPops.
“We don’t have a budget to do mailers, TV ads or coupon drops,” Wray said. But the company hopes students will go home, tell parents and get them to pick up more at the grocery store or convenience shop. Within a year, schools could make up 30 or 40 percent of the company’s revenue, Wray said.
JonnyPops remains a small bite of the “ice-cream and frozen novelties” food segment of ice-cream, sorbets, yogurts and nondairy items. It’s a slow-growing $12.6 billion dollar industry. Sales rose 1.8 percent in the last year, but the mature category has seen cumulative growth of only 8 percent since 2011, according to market researcher Mintel.
JonnyPops is bucking that trend with growth of about 300 percent year over year. It is nestled nicely into the fastest-growing parts of the frozen novelty business — products that focus on quality and indulgence in moderation.
Third-grade classmates Morgan McDonald and Daren Chamberlain, who attend Lucy Craft Laney elementary school in Minneapolis, each gave the strawberry JonnyPop thumbs up last Thursday as they finished lunch in the cafeteria. “I love them. We had them last year,” Chamberlain said.
“Only a cupcake might be better,” said McDonald as he finished his JonnyPop between bites of a grass-fed, all-beef hot dog, corn on the cob and watermelon slices.