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June 26, 2023

Nearing $100M in annual revenues, CT’s LesserEvil expands organic snack foods line, readies new in-state manufacturing plant

HBJ PHOTO | ANDREW LARSON CEO Charles Coristine in LesserEvil’s manufacturing facility at 26 Commerce Drive in Danbury. The facility is operating at capacity, forcing LesserEvil to open another factory in New Milford this year.
Andrew Larson | Hartford Business Journal
Andrew Larson | Hartford Business Journal

Charles Coristine bought Danbury-based LesserEvil in 2011, when it was generating about $800,000 a year in revenue and losing money.

The previous owner — a friend of a friend’s father— wanted to get rid of it.

“It changed hands because it wasn’t really succeeding,” said Coristine, who serves as the company’s CEO. “And we had to kind of start all over again.”

Since then, LesserEvil has become one of the country’s largest organic snack foods producers. This year, it’s on track to exceed $100 million in revenue, and the business is growing. It will debut a new manufacturing facility in New Milford by the end of summer.

LesserEvil offers a healthy alternative to unhealthy behaviors like snacking on fried potato chips.

Its products include a flagship organic popcorn with coconut oil, and other innovative creations, like Space Balls (air-puffed, whole grain organic corn balls with avocado oil and Himalayan salt) and Cosmic Rings (whole grain organic corn tossed in avocado oil and organic seasoning).

LesserEvil’s products are available at grocery stores nationwide, including locally at Whole Foods, Target, Stop & Shop, CVS, Big Y, ShopRite and others.

Coristine moved LesserEvil’s headquarters to Danbury in 2013, and has transformed it from a company merely purporting to produce “healthy snacks,” to one that actually produces snacks that are healthy, he said.

The company employs sustainable practices, including composting its waste, combined with mindful leadership of its roughly 250 employees.

Lifestyle paradigm shift

Before acquiring LesserEvil, Coristine left his job on Wall Street, where he worked ruthlessly into the early hours of the night.

His high-pressure job, he said, took a toll and led to an unhealthy lifestyle. He sought to reinvent himself.

“My body was screaming for me to do something else,” Coristine said. “So, I started changing the way I slept. I started meditating because I needed to find some grounding. ... I kind of introduced myself to a bit of a lifestyle paradigm shift. And I really started getting into food and cooking and stuff.”

Wanting to channel his newfound healthy lifestyle into his work, investing in LesserEvil seemed like a good fit.

When he bought the company, it was struggling. He invested money with the help of family and friends.

“There were days (when) I would tell them, ‘Hey, I think we’re turning the corner,’ and then two months later, I’d be like, ‘I need more money,’” Coristine said. “ … It’s what every entrepreneur goes through.”

Coristine said, on average, the company has experienced 50% annual growth since he acquired it.

But it wasn’t until 2018 that LesserEvil became successful enough to raise money from outside investors, he said.

HBJ PHOTO | ANDREW LARSON

Coristine said 2023 will be the first year the company eclipses $100 million in revenue. Just last year, LesserEvil reached the point where it was generating enough to sustain itself without outside funding.

As it continues to expand, the company recently raised $19.2 million in venture funding, most of which will not benefit the company directly. Instead, it will be used for purposes like paying secondary shareholders, he said.

About $5.5 million is earmarked for LesserEvil’s operations, including new products and an expansion that will increase its manufacturing capacity.

“We are opening a new factory because we’ve reached our boiling point under the existing facility,” Coristine said. “We just can’t stick any more production lines in. We’re at eight production lines in the current facility in Danbury.”

He believes the company’s future is in multipacks — large grocery-style bags that contain individual snack-sized bags meant to be consumed in one sitting. Each minibag has about 50 calories worth of snacks.

The new 30,000-square-foot New Milford production facility, at 458 Danbury Road, will have lines dedicated to multipack production.

“We’re investing in technology that will allow us to automate that process,” Coristine said. “Because currently, we’re making the little bags and then people have to take the bags and jam them into another bag, and then seal them. This machinery will actually automate the whole process. It will drop the little bags into a big bag and seal it. So, that’s pretty exciting.”

The new facility involves a roughly $3 million capital investment, including the purchase of new and refurbished equipment. It will have three or four production lines and increase the company’s production capacity by about 50%.

The expansion will also add about 50 new employees to LesserEvil’s current roster of 250 workers.

Additionally, LesserEvil is adding a healthy energy bar manufacturing line to its Danbury facility, which will remain in operation. In April 2022, LesserEvil acquired Portland, Maine-based R.E.D.D, which produces nutritious energy bars.

Currently, the snack bars are manufactured off-site, but Coristine is bringing that production in-house.

He said LesserEvil is also working to create a new product that is similar to the onion-flavored Funyun, but healthier.

'Good fat'

Coristine said he differentiates LesserEvil’s products from competitors based on the ingredients used and flavor profiles.

“If the taste isn’t good enough, people won’t buy the product,” he said. “Because at some point, you’d just say, ‘Screw it.’ I’m going to eat a french fry.”

LesserEvil doesn’t fry any of its products. In the factory, twin-screw extruders use pressure and heat to expand its goods into puffy, bite-sized snacks. The popcorn is air popped with coconut oil.

The oils used, including avocado and ghee, are not only relatively healthy, but add a dimension of taste.

“They are somewhat decadent and people actually really enjoy the flavor,” Coristine said. “I think many people, when they try our popcorn, they’ve probably never tried extra virgin coconut oil raw. But for some reason, it goes really well on popcorn. And it kind of tastes as good as something that’s fried, and maybe even better.”

One of his favorite LesserEvil products is Oh My Ghee popcorn, made with clarified butter and Himalayan salt. LesserEvil produces ghee in-house by boiling butter and skimming off the impurities as they rise to the top.

“What you end up left with is just good fat,” Coristine said. “And it’s easy to digest because the impurities are all taken off of it.”

Healthy value proposition

In addition to the importance of taste, Coristine said people increasingly recognize the benefits of eating healthy, and the idea of eating healthier snacks is becoming more mainstream.

Consumers, he said, typically won’t spend more than an additional 20% to 25% on organic products, compared to their nonorganic counterparts — even though organic crops can cost twice as much to buy.

That means LesserEvil tries to price its products at about the same level as nonorganic competitors. When people see an organic and nonorganic product at the same price point, many will choose the healthier option, he said.

“We’re trying to sell our products at basically the exact same price as conventional snacks, and offer all the bells and whistles and hopefully, by offering that value proposition, we will convert consumers away from those unhealthier brands,” Coristine said.

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