Stamford couple’s chips startup tastes early success
STAMFORD — For many years, Bruce and Maria Miller have helped a long list of clients develop and advertise their products. Now they have another big project that requires some expertise: their own company.
The couple are the founders of a new healthy eating startup, Smart Alex Foods, which sells tortilla chips. Within a few months of their goods hitting the shelves, they have already established a wide distribution network. They are hoping to use the early momentum to become a regional force in the snacks market.
“We wanted to create a better-tasting, better-for-you snack,” Bruce Miller said in an interview last week at the Millers’ home in North Stamford. “What we wanted to do is bring some fun and great taste to an aisle that was somewhat devoid of fun and great taste.”
Developing Smart Alex took about three years for the Millers, who met when they were both working at the same Manhattan advertising agency. Bruce Miller, 58, spent 20 years at the consultancy Just Kid Inc. As chief creative officer, he helped clients come up with brand names and concepts. He is also the creator of the Bart Simpson-starring “Nobody better lay a finger on my Butterfinger” campaign.
Maria Miller, 55, is a consumer-research expert. Alongside her work at Smart Alex, she still works full-time, as director of insights, at Stamford-based brand performance agency Lapine.
“Between the two of us, we have listened to a lot of consumers talk about what they want and what they need,” Maria Miller said.
The Millers also drew on the input of their children, 16-year-old James and 11-year-old Julianna.
“When they were younger, it was so hard to buy the tastes and flavors they liked — and that was frustrating for me,” Maria Miller said. “That was part of our inspiration. There need to be more choices that taste good and are healthy, so your kids will like it, and you’ll feel better about giving it to them.”
Nutritional content is a key selling point of Smart Alex’s multigrain chips, which are made with corn, brown rice and real cheese. Popping, rather than frying, the chips substantially lowers their fat content. They carry 4.5 grams of fat per serving, compared with 8 grams for a “leading brand,” according to their packaging.
The chips — which come in Totally Taco, Mucho Nacho Cheese and Rockin’ Ranch varieties — are gluten free and kosher, with no genetically modified organisms, artificial flavors or preservatives, high-fructose corn syrups or hydrogenated oils.
Smart Alex’s mascot on its brightly colored packaging is a fictional youth of the same name, who sports large-framed glasses and wears a wide grin. “We wanted to convey smart snacking in a whimsical way,” Bruce Miller said.
Smart Alex chips are manufactured in the tri-state area. The Millers declined to specify the manufacturer and location because they said they wanted to maintain their competitive advantage.
The Millers’ products hit the shelves in September, launching at the Palmer’s supermarket in Darien. Last month, they debuted in 11 southwestern Connecticut Grade A and ShopRite grocery stores, including four in Stamford and other locations in Brookfield, Danbury, Derby, Fairfield, Norwalk, Shelton and Southbury.
All those outlets are owned by the Cingari family.
“My family and I love to help local businesses, especially family businesses,” said Grade A/ShopRite co-owner and supervisor Dominick Cingari. “And Smart Alex has all the positive attributes our customers are looking for — they’re all natural, gluten free and non-GMO. They’re selling well, and all the stores are re-ordering.”
Among other locations, the chips are also sold at Mish Mosh Market Pizza & More in Stamford, Rowayton Market in Norwalk, Nature’s Temptations in Ridgefield and Peter’s Weston Market in Weston.
“Expanding in New England and the Northeast is our big goal right now,” Bruce Miller said. “It’s close to our home base. After that it would probably be down the Atlantic (coast). But right now, we want to build in the Northeast.”
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