From Shark Tank to social media: How a puffcorn disruptor has gone from startup to a $10m brand in just four years

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

Like Air Snacks is making a big noise on the US retail scene. Pic: Editor's own
Like Air Snacks is making a big noise on the US retail scene. Pic: Editor's own

Related tags Like Air Snacks Social media Shark Tank extruded snacks puffcorn

While homegrown startups frequently use ABC’s investment reality series to springboard their brand, Like Air Snacks already had a solid retail presence and was pulling in more than $5m in sales. So, what did its appearance on Shark Tank really achieve? And how is social media helping it soar?

Founders (and siblings) Steven Atieh and Allison Lin started Like Air in 2020 (brother Kevin joined two years later as CFO) with a mission that is typical amongst contemporary startups: to create healthy snacks that don’t compromise on taste.

Puff snacks also dominate the snack aisle today, running the gamut from cheese snacks to multigrain chips and pork rinds.

And Like Air’s puffcorn were not a market first. In fact, Frito-Lay’s Chester’s Puffcorn leads the sector.

That said, the New Jersey-based startup is passionate about the making its BFY snacks accessible to everyone and their melt-in-the-mouth USP. It’s quietly growing a devoted following on the retail scene, as well as on social media.

A healthy proposition

Like Air 2

Like Air’s snacks resemble popcorn but are “free of the traditional popcorn bits that sometimes get stuck in teeth,” Lin told Bakery&Snacks at the recent edition of Sweets and Snacks in its new home of Indianapolis.

Founded when Lin was pregnant with her second daughter and looking for a snack that was gluten-free, made in a nut-free facility and school-safe (free of major allergens), she jokes the snack is designed to be enjoyed by everyone: from six month to 106-year-olds.

Made only from corn meal, sunflower oil and natural seasonings, they’re easily digested; punch in at only 50 calories per cup; are gluten- and nut-free and certified Kosher; contain no artificial ingredients, flavors or preservatives; and truly sport a melt-in-your-mouth ability.

Like Air 3

“We use similar equipment to producers like Frito-Lay, which has been extruding corn for a long time. However, we have a propriety tool that’s a gamechanger,” said Steve Atieh. The snacks are produced by a contract manufacturer, although Like Air Snacks owns the equipment.

“It’s all about the texture, which melt in your mouth like air. Even snacks like Pirate Booty have a crunchy center, but we took that center crunch out, so our snacks melt even more. Once people try it, they’re hooked.”

The portfolio currently sports five flavors: Classic, Cheddar, Pancake, Cinnamon Bun and the newly launched Sour Cream & Onion (exclusive to BJ’s Wholesale Club). Acknowledging the snacks are highly processed – “you’re not eating an apple,” emphasized Lin – the sweet variants tick the better-for-you box with less than half a teaspoon of sugar per bag.

“That’s not stopping people from eating a whole bowlful,” she added, noting the brand tries to curtail overconsumption by offering 0.65oz packs online.

A retail brand to take seriously

Like Air 4
Steve Atieh, Allison Lin and Kevin Atieh

Albeit a small operation with only nine employees and run remotely – half the team is based in New Jersey, the other half in Michigan – “head office is at home” – Like Air Snacks is carving out a tidy path for itself.

It secured a deal with Sam’s Club in December 2021, placing it on the shelves of about 600 stores. This followed with a major listing with Kroger – in around 1,000 outlets in the eastern part of the US – which later this year, will be expanded to all Kroger divisions, including Ralphs, Fred Meyer and King Soopers, among others.

“It’s tough to just get your foot in the door in a big retailer like that and typically, you have to work with all the divisions separately,” said Lin.

“But we’ve received great support from Albertsons.” (Grocery giant Kroger acquired rival Albertsons for $24.6bn in October 2022).

Cementing the retailer’s trust in the brand was its win of Albertsons’ inaugural Innovation Launchpad competition in 2023. Like Air nabbed first place, beating runners-up Evive Smoothie Cubes and Dream Pops Plant-Based Ice Cream. Getting to the top was no mean feat, having out-run the 47 finalists – whittled down from more than 900 applications – invited to pitch to a live jury at Natural Products Expo West in Los Angeles.

Like the adage that ‘success breeds success’, it’s partially on the back of this that Like Air secured its deal with Sharks Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner.

“We were contact by Shark Tank in 2021 to apply – the program’s producers had seen our Instagram post – but we decided not to until we got into more stores,” said Lin.

“We applied in 2022 but weren’t selected, and knowing they were still interested, reapplied in 2023.”

The trio were asking for a $300,000 investment in exchange for a 3.5% equity stake but having already started raking in healthy sales ($5.2m in 2022), the Sharks were skeptical the trio were looking for anything more than free advertising.

However, emphasized Lin, “We needed all the help we could get.

“It takes a long time to build a brand; it certainly doesn’t happen overnight. And we’re still figuring out our game plan. It’s tough to get in and tougher to stay in.”

Like its growing fan base, the snacks won over the investors. In fact, Lin claims that Kevin O’Leary, aka Mr Wonderful, deemed them “his favorite low-calorie snack during his 15 years with the show.”

He, however, passed on the opportunity to invest, but Cuban and Greiner decided to ‘take a flyer’ and handed over the capital for a 5% piece of the company each.

“We were really excited about collaborating with them. Their standing in the industry is so important and our grocery buyers love to talk about it with our customers.”

The Matthew effect was undoubtedly still in play and retail sales doubled week-to-week after the Shark Tank appearance (Season 15, Episode 11). The startup is now approaching a $10m run rate.

The power of social media

Social media flavor trends WeAre
Pic: GettyImages/WeAre

Not ones to rest on their laurels, the siblings continue to ramp up their social media strategy.

“We have a very creative social media strategy with daily giveaways to get people talking about our snacks,” said Lin.

“Word of mouth marketing is especially important. Our online content isn’t curated, it’s all user generated, someone posting that they ‘love this snack’ [or to share a recipe, like the Pre-workout Puffcorn Bowl by @Waltonamy2]. At the start, we focused on Instagram, but we’ve expanded and have just launched on TikTok Shop. We also do geo-targeted social media ads, which has the potential to bring a customer into the store to buy the product, which our grocery buyers love.”

What is the five-year vision?

“To become American’s next favorite salty snack,” laughs Lin. But while her remark may be construed as frivolous, it has a serious undertone.

“We now have a loyal, engaged customer and fan base, but when we were starting, I did many of the demos myself.”

Added brother Steve, “We also didn’t just dive in and did the research. For six months, we thoroughly investigated the industry; looking at how others started, how they grew, what kind of manufacturers they used, what worked and what didn’t.

“It’s a rollercoaster ride every day: there are highs and lows. Working with family has been good – ups and downs too, right? – but at the end of the day, we’re there for each other.”

International expansion, too, is on the cards.

“We’ve talked to distributors and retailers who say American products sell well in the Middle East and in Asia, so we might start there. It’s just a matter of when.”

Watch this space.

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