Bison Bacon Cranberry, anyone? That’s one flavor of the premium, meat-based snack bars two former vegans in Texas concocted and got stocked in natural food stores across the country. Now, they have sold out to General Mills, one of the nation’s largest food makers.
In dollars, the purchase of Austin, Texas-based Epic Provisions is minor for General Mills. But the deal announced Wednesday speaks volumes about big changes sweeping through the packaged food industry.
As consumers move away from processed food, industry giants like Golden Valley-based General Mills are out shopping for companies that make natural, simpler and more millennial-friendly foods. Epic Provisions, founded just two years ago, is that sort of company. Plus, it makes snacks, one of the food industry’s hottest sectors — and its snacks are packed with protein, another sweet spot for food makers.
With sales in the neighborhood of $20 million — less than 1 percent of General Mills’ annual revenue — Epic makes energy bars, jerky bites and trail mix that pair meat with fruit and nuts. Think Lamb Currant Mint or Pulled Pork Pineapple.
Epic will operate under California-based Annie’s, the organic and natural food maker that General Mills bought in 2014 for $820 million. The price of the Epic purchase wasn’t disclosed.
Epic’s co-founders, Taylor Collins and Katie Forrest, will remain in their current positions with the company, which will continue to be based in Austin.
Collins, 33, and Forrest, 29, created a new snack category by incorporating meat into snack bars, which were then sold at retail alongside grain and fruit-and-nut snack bars. The duo focused on sustainable sourcing and acquiring meat from animals that were grass-fed and pasture-raised. The retail price per Epic snack bar: $2.49 to $2.99.
Collins and Forrest couldn’t have imagined themselves in such a business not long ago.
“We thought for a long time that eating clean and well meant eating plant-based diets,” said Collins, Epic’s “chief.” The couple, who are married, went from being vegetarians (a diet that can include dairy and eggs) to being “militant” vegans, as Collins put it.
But as they went further down the veggie spectrum, Forrest’s long-standing gastrointestinal problems worsened, which impinged on her athletic endeavors, Collins said. Forrest, Epic’s president, participates in triathlons, and Collins does long-distance trail runs of up to 30 miles or so.
A doctor told Forrest that her diet was causing her maladies; she wasn’t getting enough iron or protein, and animal fat would help, too, Collins said.
The couple started eating grass-fed bison, beef and sheep, and Forrest’s physical issues quickly went away, Collins said. With the couple’s diet including meat, the Epic bar concept was born.
Forrest and Collins had a small company that made a vegan snack bar, but they didn’t get very far marketing it. So after creating various meat-based snack bars, they took their new wares to a natural foods trade show in 2013 in Anaheim, Calif. By the time they had returned to Austin, the couple had signed deals with Whole Foods Market and two national natural foods distributors.
Over the next two years, Epic “turned down quite a few [buyout] offers” from large food companies, Collins said. Until General Mills came knocking.
“They were philosophically in line with us,” he said. “They shared our vision.”
With General Mills, Epic can expand distribution and allay its supply chain headaches. “These guys are bringing in fantastic operating resources and fantastic supply chain help, which is in dire need,” Collins said.
But what about the notion of selling out to Big Food? “We were nervous about that,” Collins said. “People’s knee-jerk reaction is to be skeptical of big business.”
Collins said he was heartened by feedback he got Wednesday, including on Epic’s Facebook page. Positive comments outnumbered negative ones, though there were still several customers questioning Epic’s alliance with Big Food, with one commenter calling it “scary news.”
Staff writer Evan Ramstad contributed to this story.