Empanadas were the logical next step for owners Junea Rocha and husband Cameron MacMullin, who started the company in 2010 with Rocha's recipe for traditional Brazilian cheese bread, also known as queso bundo or pão de queijo.
Consumers were immediately attracted to the convenience of a freezer-to-oven snack and the familiarity of a ‘hyper-conventional combination’ of cheese and bread, she told BakeryandSnacks.
“Empanadas are taking that sentiment and expanding the brand into a Latin American foods company, rather than just a cheese bite company or an empanada company,” she said.
“The consumer now is just not wanting Mexican cuisine. Now there is an interest in international flavors. Latin is very approachable. It’s the global flavor that took over – now it’s a part of the American palate.”
To achieve the same level of easy snacking, Brazi Bites developed the empanadas to be ‘bite-sized and snackable.’
The first flavor, Chicken & Cheese, of the naturally gluten-free empanadas – thanks to tapioca flour – hit shelves of select Target stores in the US in June (RRP $4.99 for a 10-count bag). The company has yet to determine size and pricing of a bag for club stores, where it has found solid support with the original cheese bites (RRP $12.99 for a 62-count bag).
The dough includes eggs, milk, high-oleic safflower oil, and parmesan and cheddar cheese. The filling blends boneless chicken thighs with navy beans, cheddar cheese and chicken stock; bell peppers, green chiles and spices; and a hint of zest from lime juice and apple cider vinegar.
All of these elements combine to create a snack suitable to the American palate, versus those created abroad and sold in the US.
“Selling stateside from abroad is difficult," said Rocha. "We have a brand that resonates with American consumers."
The company plans to unveil Beef & Bean empanadas later this summer, as well as two vegetarian options: Chickpea Vegetable and Black Bean & Cheddar.
Like the brand’s original products, Rocha recommends heating the frozen empanadas in the oven for about 10 minutes, at 350-degrees Fahrenheit.
Better frozen snacks becoming a reality
One serving of three Chicken & Cheese empanadas packs 9g of protein, plus 10% of the recommended daily calcium intake and 4% of potassium, iron and vitamins A and D. It also holds 380mg of sodium (17% of daily value per US standards); by comparison, Latin food brand Goya’s chicken empanadas have 490mg of sodium.
The frozen food aisle has been slow to innovate, said Rocha, who purposefully positioned Brazi Bites to focus on the natural channel ‘straight out of the gate.’
Frozen steady, now heating up
Frozen foods managed to stay afloat after the recession due to their convenience, but consumers continued to eye them cautiously, according to Mintel. By 2010, the $2bn category was being pinched by the rise of convenience items at quick-service restaurants and by salty snacks.
Sales of frozen snacks have since rebounded, however, growing at a clip of 9% from 2008 to 2013, per Mintel. In 2015, the sector had reached $4.5bn and is expected to grow slightly through 2022.
The steady nature of the frozen food sector likely stems from families' reliance on the convenience, as 85% of parents told Mintel they feed their kids frozen snacks. Still, they believe that these products, “while suitable as a convenient indulgence, could be healthier and less artificial,” William Roberts, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel, said in 2016.
That is precisely the void Rocha sees Brazi Bites filling: “We are a part of that huge wave,” she told this site.
Brazi Bites revamped its marketing and packaging in 2016 – the year after its Shark Tank appearance, where the couple made a deal with ‘Queen of QVC’ Lori Greiner. It later fell through, but the exposure propelled distribution into more than 7,000 stores. Revenue jumped from a reported $8.6m in 2016 to $13m in 2017.
Rocha declined to provide sales figures for 2018, but confirmed the new packaging boosted the brand’s ability to stand out in the freezer section.
“The redesign generated a much more eye-catching, colorful, fun and approachable brand architecture that has worked well for us,” she said.
It also made sense to modernize it for today’s more adventurous consumers.
On the sweet side
Alongside the empanada launch, Brazi Bites has dipped its toes into a sweet version of its flagship cheese bread: Cinnamon Churro stuffed with cream cheese will hit shelves this month.
Rounding out the cheese bread line are three savory flavors: Cheddar & Parmesan, Garlic Asiago and 3-Cheese Pizza.
In addition to expanding its product portfolio, Brazi Bites has also altered its company structure.
Last year, Rocha and MacMullin sold a majority stake to San Francisco Equity Partners, an investment firm that typically invests in mid-sized companies with up to $100m in sales.
Mike Guanella, former CEO of nut-butter brand Justin’s, joined the executive team in 2018. Rocha moved to the CMO role, while MacMullin switched to COO.
“[Guanella has] brought a wealth of knowledge in the food industry and is further expanding our team,” Rocha told us. “Since his arrival, we've added several key positions to support sales, marketing and operations and continue to implement new strategies across the organization that will help us achieve our long term plans.”
Brazi Bites also recently appointed Glenn Smith – a former senior buyer at Target and sales director at Nestlé – as senior VP of sales. In the latter role, Smith led a 45-person team that generated more than $800m in sales. Rocha said he will focus on ‘developing strategic sales plans’ to propel growth and customer satisfaction.
Getting here has been ‘a grind of a lifetime,’ but Rocha remains focused on ‘constantly pivoting and learning.’
“You just don’t know what’s going to resonate,” she said. “There’s no blueprint – you have to create one.”