Read this featured article by Orlando Sentinel's Paul Brikmann on Jerry Bello's ability to create and grow food and beverage brands.
Chipping in: Windermere businessman has track record in snacks
Pasta Chips entrepreneur builds snack empire in Orlando suburb
Tiny, quaint downtown Windermere isn't known for hosting big businesses, but the Orlando suburb's Main Street is home to at least one significant company in the snack-food business.
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Demand is strong for snacks that are healthier than the traditional potato chip or fatty cracker, and businessman Jerry Bello has been able to capitalize. He developed Pasta Chips, a savory snack that is available in major grocery chains, after discovering something similar during a trip abroad. And Bello previously had invented Veggie Straws in 2006, which grew a reported $100 million in annual sales before he sold it to Hain Celestial in 2010 in a private deal.
Bello has, in turn, helped other entrepreneurs grow through another firm he owns, Keen Marketing and Manufacturing.
On a recent day in his office, he hosted a woman who is starting a fresh, organic baby-food company and trying to expand delivery of refrigerated puree to stores. He also helped Sheila G. Mains, of West Palm Beach, expand her company Brownie Brittle, which is also in many major grocery chains now.
"I've learned through trial and error many painful lessons in this business, and it can be a brutal business," he said. "If I can help someone avoid those mistakes now, I want to do that."
Pasta Chips is one of the few companies in Central Florida attracting regular venture capital investments. In October, Pasta Chips announced $3 million in new venture investment, led by Advantage Capital Agribusiness Partners (ACAP), Silas Capital and Emil Capital Partners. It has about 14 full-time employees.
Silas Capital referred to Bello as "a foodie and serial entrepreneur behind a number of enormously popular snack-food successes."
With a background in the pharmaceutical industry, Bello's first company in New Jersey provided in-home intravenous therapies to patients with cancer or AIDS.
"I was emotionally shattered after five years in that business. You watch thousands of beautiful people die," he said. "I decided to use my background in trying to create a healthier snack that people would enjoy."
He moved to Florida from New Jersey in June 2010.
"We used to do the Disney thing every year, and we would stay with friends here," he said. "People were just nice. I was so defensive, growing up in Jersey, and it took a while for me to ease up a little."
Around the same time, Bello decided pasta made a better chip than potatoes or even other wheat products. He says he was vacationing in Italy and found a baked pasta chip at a restaurant there.
"It's lighter than pita chips. We use hard semolina wheat, which is what pasta is, so you get the crispness of a fried chip with fewer calories," he said.
Bello also included farro flour in his chips, which has a higher protein content than standard wheat. His company is trying to recreate the flavors of pasta sauces in his chip varieties, including garlic olive oil, alfredo, marinara and spicy tomato herb. Pasta Chips are available in supermarkets such as Publix, and are sold online through big retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart.
Not everyone raves about Pasta Chips. A nutrition website called Fooducate ranked Pasta Chips a "C" because it is "highly processed" and contains various additives that aren't natural, but gave it check marks for having no saturated fat and no added sugar.
A report from Sandler Research in 2015 said that millennials snack more often than younger generations, but they are attracted to what they perceive as natural ingredients. The analysts forecast the global savory, or salty, snacks market to grow 4.34 percent through 2019 to reach $125 billion.
Getting a product into major chains is important, but Bello likes to stay focused on making his product appealing to consumers.
"I know the major chains, I know where they need to fill a niche, and I can put that knowledge to work on new products, whether they are mine or others," he said.
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