At a softball tournament in Kansas City earlier this month, Cole Schaefer asked a question that has defined his life for the past five years:

"Do you want to try some sunflower seeds?"

Schaefer and Brian Waddick have racked up millions of views on TikTok offering their Smackin' sunflower seeds to ballplayers — including high-profile Major League Baseball players like Manny Machado — to get honest reviews.

"That's a 9.5, that's really good," Blue Jays prospect Conor Larkin said of the cinnamon churro variety.

The viral videos have helped sales grow tenfold for several years in a row, the founders say, and on some days the Minneapolis-based company packs thousands of bags of seeds to satisfy its online orders.

"We had a hypothesis that baseball players wanted a higher-quality sunflower seed," Schaefer said. "What's the best way that we can display that? Sharing our story in a public way and sharing a product with real authentic interactions."

The 25-year-old founders, who met as roommates at the University of Minnesota, say it is that authenticity that has brought them from roasting seeds in their apartment to fending off investors.

"We've reached the point where our margins are really good, and we're able to invest in the business and just keep growing at the pace that we're growing without any external capital," Waddick said.

Smackin' would rather answer to customers than investors.

"We read the comments, we read the reviews, we know we don't know everything," Schaefer said. "We're probably going to kick up the seasoning ratio in our dill pickle variety because of that Kansas City trip."

Uprooting the competition

Sunflower seeds are a $600 million industry in the U.S., according to retail sales data from Circana, and that's driven largely by ballgames and travel. The largest brand on the market, David, started nearly a century ago, and a handful of names such as Giants, Bigs and Spitz dominate retail sales.

That data does not include online sales, however, and that's where Smackin' has been making inroads.

"We're Number Two on Amazon in the sunflower seed category," Waddick said. "We're chasing those big guys."

While Amazon, TikTok and website sales are the bread and butter for Smackin' so far, the seeds can be found in Play It Again Sports and Scheels. Smackin' will soon also be on shelves at Lunds & Byerlys and Hy-Vee.

Convenience stores are another major target.

"We're just getting our footprint there," said Waddick, a Duluth native.

The company has a manufacturing plant in Salt Lake City and about 100 employees. It offers seven flavors, including staples such as cracked pepper and more adventurous seasonings including garlic parmesan and cinnamon churro.

Schaefer, who grew up in Milwaukee, said Smackin' stands out with bolder flavors and bigger seeds. And it has to, when charging more than the established brands.

"There was a lot of pushback in the beginning from retailers: 'Why is this price higher? I don't know if my consumers will buy it,'" he said. "But we just continuously believed in what we were doing, put out a high quality product and proved it with the data."

Last year Smackin' was the nation's fastest-growing snack brand, as measured by e-commerce platform Charm.Io.

Beyond seeds

The company's hits have been accompanied by a few errors, no surprise as Smackin' grew during a pandemic and global supply chain crisis. Schaefer said the goal is to be forthcoming about missteps.

"We kept on growing and experiencing setbacks, wins, setbacks," he said.

One of the TikTok videos starts with a mea culpa.

"Customers appreciate that," Schaefer said. "It goes a long way."

Since those first batches in 2019, the packaging got a major redesign, new flavors have come and gone and the founders have been able to take steps toward their broader ambition: making Smackin' a global confectionery brand.

"More products are in the works, more flavors, more brands," Waddick said.

More product lines will likely come from a combination of internal development and acquisitions, the founders said.

And they plan to be a part of the story as long as they can.

"We're having fun with it," Waddick said. "Why leave?"