Founder: Jack Kuo
Year founded: 2014
Product description: Gourmet cheese puffs tasty enough to be served on a platter.
Yearly sales: "Less than a million," Kuo says, "but we've doubled every year without trying."
Is it profitable?: Yes.
Available at: New Seasons, Market of Choice and Natural Grocers
When it comes to food, Jack Kuo tends to get a little obsessive. It's not that he's a glutton—it's just that, when he falls for a new snack, he falls hard.
And so it was with cheese puffs.
After leaving Seattle, where he worked for espresso machine distributor La Marzocco, and relocating to Portland six years ago, Kuo, 38, got reacquainted with the fluffy-crunchy corn treats of his youth. Soon, it reached the point where he could annihilate a whole bag in five minutes, despite the pangs of guilt he'd feel afterward.
"I happen to have a have a food science degree, so I have a habit of reading the ingredients list on everything I buy," he says. "Even in natural and organic cheese puff products, there's a lot of junk ingredients."
He eventually decided to put that degree to use. In 2014, Kuo founded Fuller Foods with the intent of, in effect, building a better Cheeto.
"If you look at the category of snacks in the grocery store, you have popcorn that's been revitalized the past 10 years, and potato chips and tortilla chips even longer," Kuo says. "But puff snacks have just been stagnant."
Initially operating on self-modified equipment in a 1,000-square-foot factory in Sellwood—production has since moved to a bigger facility in California—Kuo began making puffs minus colorants and additives like maltodextrin. Instead, he focused on using "quality ingredients" sourced from the Pacific Northwest, including corn from Bob's Red Mill and locally made cheese. Other than being healthier, Fuller's products are larger than others on the market, which also owes to how they're made: According to Kuo, mass-marketed cheese puffs are kept small because they jam up large-scale industrial machinery.
Currently, the company produces three flavors: Sriracha Cheddar, Blue Cheese Jalapeño and Asiago Black Pepper. The latter is particularly bingeable—light, airy and remarkably fresh. It's easy to pop open a bag while watching TV and find yourself scraping bottom before the first commercial break. In this case, though, you can shrug off any feelings of guilt and just reach for another.
Guilty pleasure snack: "For a couple years, it was ice cream, but then I OD'd on that. Now it's chocolate. There's this one chocolate company based in San Francisco called Dandelion. There's so much flavor. Oh my God, you'll be in love."
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