Healthy snack company 88 Acres grows with help from a UMass investment fund.
Eight years ago, Nicole M. Ledoux ’01 had a life-changing moment. She watched in horror as her boyfriend, Robert Dalton, went into anaphylactic shock when he ate a nut hidden in a restaurant dinner. Dalton, born with a severe nut allergy, survived the ordeal, while the incident turned Ledoux into an accidental entrepreneur.
In 2015, she founded 88 Acres, which makes healthy vegan snacks free of the top food allergens and without gluten, GMOs, soy, or eggs. The Boston-based company now has 26 full- and part-time workers and sells its allergen-free bars, seed butter (made of sunflower, pumpkin, and flaxseed), and what Ledoux calls “seednolo” (granola without nuts and gluten) at 1,000 retail outlets across the country.
The first 88 Acres bars were sold in local Whole Foods stores; more recently, the 79 stores of New England’s Market Basket grocery chain began carrying them. “We knew that if we could not be successful in our own backyard, there was no way we would be successful elsewhere,” says Ledoux. Now 20 percent of sales come from their website or Amazon. Their products are also on shelves of a variety of retailers, such as airport shops in Chicago and Orlando and local food co-operatives. They have made successful forays into the cafeterias of corporate America, including Google’s Los Angeles office. They also supply products to the Boston Public Schools and institutions of higher education, including retail outlets at UMass Amherst.
The 88 Acres base of operations in Boston’s Allston neighborhood includes open-plan offices lined with whiteboards and sometimes scented with cinnamon or other spices from the headquarters’ test kitchen. Loud high fives punctuate the quiet to celebrate the opening of a new account. The bars and seed butters are made a few miles away in the former Bornstein & Pearl Food meat factory, redeveloped by the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation as a food production center in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. The 88 Acres bakery recently expanded to 5,350 square feet there; 90 percent of the employees are Dorchester residents.
88 Acres is now well positioned to grow, says Ameeta Soni ’82G, president of Altek Consulting Inc. of Lynnfield, Massachusetts, and a member of the Maroon Fund investment committee. She points out that 88 Acres has increased sales since the Maroon Fund investment, validating the fund’s decision. The taste and soft texture of its products are fundamental to the company’s success. “While it is really important to say, ‘Hey, this is good for you,’ if it doesn’t taste good, the product will not sell,” Soni says.
The Maroon Fund really helped with propelling the brand and getting a lot of momentum.—Nicole Ledoux ’01
The Maroon Fund provides two other benefits to the UMass community: 20 percent of its investment profits will be donated to the campus, and a student advisory committee gives undergraduates real-world experiences in venture capital. A five-member investment committee makes final decisions, but students make recommendations after researching companies, meeting with potential fund clients, and attending investment committee meetings. “Participating on the student advisory board gave me a firsthand look at how early-stage investing is done and confirmed my interest in pursuing an additional degree or career in business and/or entrepreneurship,” says Zachary Vaneck ’18, a mechanical engineering major with a minor in engineering management. Another student advisory committee member, Kaylene Prior ’18, a finance major, says, “I got to sit in on a due diligence call with a company’s founder, which was great exposure to the more legal side of investing that we had not learned about in my classes.”
Now that 88 Acres has a foothold in the market, Ledoux, who majored in economics and legal studies, has many thanks to offer UMass Amherst. “I feel an enormous sense of gratitude. I feel like I owe UMass for providing me the tools and skill set to go out there in the real world and start to make something of myself,” she explains. She grew up in the small central Massachusetts town of North Brookfield on an 88-acre organic vegetable farm that inspired the company name. As her high school valedictorian, UMass Amherst offered her an impossible-to-resist financial aid package. “I think the opportunity to get an investment from the Maroon Fund brings it full circle,” Ledoux says.