Kale chips propel Rhythm Superfoods to expansion

August 13, 2015

Before kale was cool, Keith Wahrer and Scott Jensen were all about the curly greens.

About five years ago, Wahrer had just opened his third The Daily Juice, part of a franchise of juice bars in Austin, Texas. That newest location was larger than the others, and he decided to put its kitchen to use making snacks to sell as grab-and-go items. Wahrer experimented with a variety of products including air-crisped kale chips, which were a hit.

Rhythm FoodsFrom those simple beginnings grew a company called Rhythm Superfoods. It’s currently doing business in all 50 states and expanding production, along with its product line. 

Ahead of the Trend

“About five years ago, there weren’t any kale chips being sold in supermarkets at all,” said Jensen, now Rhythm Superfoods’ CEO.

Using small dehydrators, Wahrer perfected his recipe and process and began selling the chips in his juice bars. Serendipitously, the headquarters of Whole Foods was nearby, and some of the staff were juice bar customers.

Wahrer had already been selling raw vegan bars at Whole Foods, and he decided to see if they’d like to take on some of his latest creations.

“I presented them with a whole bunch of different products I had developed – 10 to 12,” Wahrer said. “They loved the kale chips. So I started making and selling them to Whole Foods back in 2009-2010.

“It was kind of before the wave – before kale as a huge trend.”

Jensen came along just after leaving a leadership position with Stubb’s BBQ, looking to continue in natural foods. The two started Rhythm Superfoods in 2010, finding more outlets for the kale chips. They bought bigger and more dehydrators and eventually ran out of space at the juice bar.

“We moved into another facility and had seven medium-sized dehydrators,” Jensen said. “We were there about nine months and ran out of space again.”

Their business kept growing, as they expanded into about 40 more Whole Foods stores in Florida and southwest Texas. They found a much larger spot north of Dallas and moved operations there for a year and a half.

“There was a facility, we brought our equipment in there and they made our product with their labor,” Jensen said, describing a production model the company continues to operate under. “We could bring in trucks of kale and store it in their walk-in cooler. In Austin, we didn’t have enough refrigeration space available to amp up production.”

Inventing the Process

It was a new frontier, Wahrer said.

“We were making products that had never been made on a large scale before,” he said. “We had to invent how it’s done … they’ll never be as easy to make as something fried.”

For one, they figured out that producing a product like kale chips – which live and die by being dried correctly – in larger quantities isn’t the best in geographic areas where rain and humidity are common.

“If it rains, it may take 20 hours (versus 12 to 14 normally) to dehydrate,” Jensen said, explaining that the kale is processed at a low temperature to preserve vitamins and enzymes.

So the search for another facility with larger capacity in a dryer climate led them to Boulder County, Colorado. About 20 full-time workers are dedicated to Rhythm’s production there.

“We quadrupled capacity with four mega dehydrators the size of an 18-wheeler truck,” Jensen said. “We’ve been there ever since.”

Handling is a key factor. Kale chips are brittle, so conveyors can’t have significant drops and packaging requires special attention.

“We’ve softened the path of the kale chip tremendously,” Jensen said.

They also instituted a triple-washing process that includes a wash step at harvest.

“We work with growers to wash it at the field,” Wahrer said. “That’s a new development for us. We’re able to maintain quality a lot better by having that step in place.”

Today, Rhythm contracts directly with farmers to source three full truckloads of fresh kale every week, processing the leaves into chips in eight flavors. The products are in 280 Whole Foods stores, more than 1,000 Kroger, Stop & Shop and others.

“They’re everywhere,” Jensen said. “They’re national. There’s not a state where they aren’t.”

About 15 ounces of fresh kale goes into a 2-ounce bag of kale chips that retails for around $4.99, though it’s Jensen’s hope that the price will come down. Rhythm likes to see them displayed in the snack sections of produce departments. 

What’s Ahead

The company is now expanding with broccoli bites. They’re initially destined for Sprouts Farmers Market and Whole Foods stores in select regions, Jensen said.

Rhythm expects those to be as successful as the kale chips.

“People are looking for a much healthier snack environment,” Jensen said. “The highest growth segment within the snack category is fruit- and vegetable-based snacks.”

With that in mind, the company’s three full-time research and development employees continue to develop and test new recipes. Jensen said Rhythm anticipates other new product launches in the third quarter this year, with a new fruit-based product scheduled for a January release.

Headquarters is still in Austin, where the company employs 22 full-time sales and marketing people. However, they expect to be at production capacity by October in Colorado, and are looking to expand to yet another location.

In the meantime, the potential for increasing distribution in the kale line remains high.

“There are still 20,000 supermarkets that don’t have kale chips,” Jensen said. Rhythm is also eyeing convenience, warehouse and club stores.

For Wahrer, the evolution of Rhythm Superfoods from its simple beginnings has been exciting.

“It’s really a trip to see how far it’s come and how well it’s been established.

— By Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer