A few years ago, Mike Prather and his colleagues at Birmingham, AL’s Flavor Pic Tomato Co. had a problem. They had a great product – a sugar-sweet grape tomato – and an even better idea – marketing that tomato in snack-sized servings for moms and kids and on-the-go folks who care about what they eat.
They knew the product and an on-the-go-container were hits – early sampling had shown them that.
What they didn’t have was an idea that would get that product noticed by retail produce buyers.
“The original concept was to put a snacking grape tomato that would fit in a cupholder in a car, you’re driving from point A to point B and you want something healthy to eat that’s not a candy bar and not a chip and fits in a modern environment — every vehicle today has a cupholder. That was the whole point. That was the original concept,” Prather says.
The first version of what’s now known as Handy Candy came in an 8-ounce container and sold for about $2. Associated Grocers Baton Rouge was the first client. But the product didn’t move. Prather and company knew that in order to make the Handy Candy popular as a snack, price had to come down while convenience went up.
“The team sat in their offices and came up with the Handy Candy mascot, we’re sketching stuff, we even went to McDonald’s and bought the little parfait cups they had as experimentation for the whole process of making the cups and the look for what we were trying to achieve,” Prather recalls. “We did that playing in the office, got razor blades out to cut up the cups, making Xerox copies to create the concept of Handy Candy. And we did it. It was a group effort. We came up with what Handy Candy is. We got the cup reduced to 4-ounce to get the price point below a dollar. Then we tried to sell it.”
So how to spread the word? First Handy Candy LLC was formed to differentiate the product from Flavor Pic and its parent the Alex Kontos Fruit Co.
The Southeast Produce Council’s annual Southern Exposure tradeshow was coming up. Every year the show has a theme and for 2015 it was the 1950s.
Handy Candy had actually premiered at PMA Fresh Summit in Anaheim in 2014. “We had a booth stuck way back in the corner,” Prather says.
So Prather knew Handy Candy needed a distinctive calling card for Southern Exposure.
Right about that time a professional hula-hooper (yes, there is such a thing) named Katie Sunshine was blowing up on YouTube – millions were watching her pull off amazing stunts with multiple hoops and some eye-popping moves. Prather stumbled across one of Sunshine’s videos and was transfixed.
“She was doing hula-hooping like a little wild girl, she’d just gone viral a few months before. I showed the guys at the office one of her videos. I told them, ‘I don’t know what else you can do with this but there’s some kind of marketing value here.’”
Prather’s colleagues were skeptical. Regardless, he decided to try and contact Sunshine about the possibility of her performing in the Handy Candy booth at SEPC.
“I tried to get in touch with her, I messaged her through her YouTube channel, I messaged her everywhere I could find, I did some extra Googling. We were getting down to the wire, litereally, when I finally got in touch with her. I told her, ‘I don’t want you to think I’m weird or anything, but I want to talk to you and I’m willing to take care of your expenses and fly you in to be an entertainer in my booth. She did it. That’s when Katie Sunshine came into place. That’s when the spark happened. That was the big tactical boom.”
Prather says he “eased her into the whole produce industry thing. I didn’t want her running out of the room screaming,” he laughs. “Have you been with us? If you don’t know produce people and how we operate you could get a little freaked out.”
Instead, “She was an instantaneous hit. We were in a tent that year and it rained and we got flooded and I hated it but it didn’t matter – every time I looked up and down the aisles everybody was looking at our booth the entire time watching Katie.”
Three years later, Sunshine has appeared at practically every show where Handy Candy has exhibited. And “we’ve gone from ground zero to first a Southeastern company, now we’re coast to coast and I have co-packers from California to the Eastern Seaboard in the Handy Candy label,” Prather says. “I just signed a contract with Class Produce Group and we’re going to march on up the East Coast.”
Equally important, Sunshine “loves this industry now and we’re going to keep the full court press on,” Prather says. As a bonus, thanks to his steady employment of Sunshine, “Apparently in the hula-hooping world I’m famous now. All the girls know me and I’m cool,” Prather laughs. “Handy Candy is inside the hula hoop world.”
Prather doesn’t take any particular credit for Handy Candy’s success. “We’re all hungry, we’re all doing what we need to do, we’re all trying to make it. But you can have fun with produce, produce is not boring: We can have fun with it, we can market it, we can make it where people want to buy it. I feel like a lot of times when you go to these shows and look at what we do as an industry, we’re stoic, there’s no imagination. I’m like, ‘Let’s do something different, let’s get attention.’”
Or, in other words, let’s remember that everybody loves a little sunshine. And a great idea.