If you’re anything like me, you feel a twinge of guilt every time you reach into that little box for another plastic zipper snack bag. And I usually justify using yet another new plastic bag by telling myself that I’ll rinse it out and reuse it. Even though I hate rinsing and drying them, and I probably only do it less than 10% of the time. I really do want to do what I can to live a greener life. But the low cost of those little yellow boxes of convenience mean that almost every day I’m adding another piece of plastic to the waste stream that ends in a landfill. But not anymore… Read on for my review of the Snackaby Reusable Sandwich and Snack Bags, and the story of how their creators have more in mind than how to keep your apple slices from browning.
I received a set of two Snackaby reusable snack bags from my good friend (the talented painter and educator Clarissa Shanahan) after spending a day talking with her about how artists and creative-types are becoming more entrepreneurial, using technology and marketplace sites (like Etsy, Zazzle, Spoonflower, Ponoko, Blurb, and Lulu to name a few) to design, manufacture, and sell their designs/art/products directly to the consumer. Our conversation was wide-ranging, but the gist of it was that the savvy artist/creative has a lot of resources at their disposal now to start a successful art/craft business.
People, planet, profit. Every decision we make has to come back to those ideals that frame a sustainable business.
—Jen Dowd, co-creator of Snackaby tweet
Clarissa’s sister, Jen Larsen of West Orange, New Jersey, is one of the two moms who created Snackaby. Her friend Jen Dowd is the other co-creator. Together, the two are mother to four children (three boys and a girl), ranging in age from 5 to 9. Two years after sewing the first prototype, the two Jens have gone from a home-based craft business to hiring an American manufacturer so they can scale up their business. Now the two moms are offering versions of Snackaby customized with school colors and logos as promotional or fund-raising items, and are approaching national organizations too.
What follows is an edited interview I had with Jen Larsen and Jen Dowd via email about their experiences starting this business.
Jay Thomson (JT): What is Snackaby?
Jen Larsen: A Snackaby is a reusable, washable, wipeable, dishwasher-safe snack and sandwich bag. Unlike others that have a cotton exterior and must be cleaned in the laundry, ours are laminated and can be wiped clean or thrown in the dishwasher.
JT: It’s that last benefit that really turned me onto Snackaby, and I don’t even have kids. I would imagine most moms would really appreciate being able to pop them in the dishwasher. How (and when) did you first get the idea to create Snackaby? What was your inspiration?
Larsen: Jen’s son and mine were in the same pre-school class together. That’s how we met. Both of us sew, are into crafts and in particular, crafts and products that promote green living. Jen brought a (cotton) reusable snack bag that she bought in Michigan to a playdate once, and I told her that I had been working on making some for myself. We had reusable components for our sons’ protoypes, and we kept refining the design based on feedback from other moms, until we arrived at the Snackaby as it stands today.
JT: Do you each do everything for the business, or do you have clear-cut roles that are different from each other (ie, one does the marketing/business while the other focuses on the product)?
Larsen: We each take the lead on different aspects of the business, but always make our decisions together. I work on design and production and marketing to consumers through Etsy. Jen is an amazing educator and is at the forefront in green initiatives at the state and local level. She has a great capacity to see collaborative possibilities where traditionally there aren’t any. She had the ideas and the connections to get Snackaby out there as an option for school and non-profit fundraisers. Jen’s idea is that not only can Snackaby benefit schools and non-profits, but use of the product itself will benefit schools and communities by reducing waste.
Jen Dowd: And of course Jen is being way too modest about her contribution. If it wasn’t for her, I would have no clue how much our product costs to make. She knows everything about the costs down to the cent and has it broken down into each component. She controls the inventory and keeps a healthy ratio of raw materials-to-completed Snackabys at the factory. She keeps track of purchases, sends out orders, and connects with people about the product consistently.
JT: Knowing how much your product costs to make IS important! How long was it until you began thinking of growing the business from a home-based craft item to a manufactured item? Were you immediately overwhelmed by the demand on Etsy, or was it more of a gradual growth?
Larsen: We pretty much thought if we could make a better reusable snack bag, we wanted to sell it. Our growth on Etsy has been slow because there are many other reusable snack bags on Etsy, although, as I said earlier, they often have a tough-to-clean cotton exterior. A lot of people still haven’t heard of reusable snack bags, believe it or not, so they don’t even know what choices they have, what to look for. But people who try ours really love them and the feature they really love is being able to wipe both outside and inside and being able to throw them into the dishwasher, if needed.
JT: That’s true. I hadn’t heard about them either, until your sister introduced me. I feel like I got in on the ground floor of something that’s going to go BIG!
Dowd: I think it mainly came from the idea that it cost too much time for us to make them. It takes about 15 minutes to sew each one. That is, if everything is already cut, and there are no mistakes or things that go wrong with the sewing machine (but something always went wrong). Our time was better spent doing other things.
JT: I feel the same way about my designs on Spoonflower and Zazzle. I’d rather spend my time creating new designs than making products to sell to the consumer. I leave it up to the consumer what they will do with the fabric I design, although I have started creating more cut-and-sew patterns (such as bow ties) when it makes sense to. I never wanted to be a home-based sweat shop. Speaking of manufacturing, what was your criteria when you were hunting for a manufacturer? How long did it take to find the right one?
Larsen: One of the primary goals of our business is to be a sustainable business. That means no overseas production. Rather, we put our money into local businesses and the local economy. We spent time researching manufacturers in the U.S., specifically in the Northeast. The stories we heard about factories losing their business to overseas manufacturing was heartbreaking. On the other hand, because U.S. manufacturers pay a living wage and benefits, our production costs are relatively high. We take less than the traditional markup in order to keep our manufacturing here in the U.S., specifically in New Jersey.
Dowd: People, planet, profit. Every decision we make has to come back to those ideals that frame a sustainable business.
JT: Since I do a lot of my own fabric design on Spoonflower, I’m curious if you design your own fabric, or are you buying pre-printed material from other sources?
Larsen: The fabric we use for Snackaby’s exterior is a laminated cotton. Right now, we don’t have the sales volume to justify getting our own fabrics laminated. The fabric runs required are just too large. We would love to ultimately design our own fabrics (or maybe do a Jay Thomson exclusive run?) but for now, we have found some design companies that do a nice weight laminate in designs we like.
JT: Okay, I thought you were laminating your own fabric as a step in the manufacturing process. Maybe Spoonflower will eventually add lamination to their offerings. Have you ever thought of working with artists and designers to create unique designs for Snackaby? Maybe some sort of licensing agreement? Or would that drive the price point up too much?
Dowd: Yes, we have thought about that! We are working with a printer now to print designs on a white bag. One way that we are partnering with nonprofits is by providing them free bags to give away at fundraising events. This is how we do it: We sell ad space to companies who want to support the local nonprofit. The companies pay for the bag through ad sales and we can now give them to the nonprofit for free. This helps nonprofits, connects local companies with the nonprofit and helps to promote their brand, and reduces the use of plastic baggies.
JT: Wow, that’s a really great model. Other than Etsy, where else do you sell Snackaby? For instance, do you do craft sales, or even wholesale shows?
Larsen: Yes, our Etsy shop, snackaby.etsy.com. We have also done a few fairs so that we can get direct feedback from customers.
JT: Clarissa mentioned to me that you’re trying to get schools to buy customized versions of Snackaby for fund-raising drives. Can you tell me about that?
Dowd: There are several ways to do this… one is to have the school’s PTA purchase or offset the cost to the students. We can also do online fundraisers where people put in a code and 20% is given back to the school.
JT: I love the idea of using a “coupon” code to designate what school or charity the money goes to. Usually discount codes are an incentive for customers to buy at a lower price… but that means some customers are paying a higher price for your product which seems unfair in some ways. This way, everybody pays the same price, but can designate 20% to the school or charity of their choice. And if the school or nonprofit really promote it, you get extra business and they earn lots of donations, while the customers still get a great price. It’s win-win-win! What else are you doing to court large accounts?
Dowd: We can’t say anything yet. It is in the process, but those are difficult because large companies want to buy it cheap. Unless the company is branded “buy local” they may not understand the rationale for paying a little more to keep production here in the United States.
JT: That’s so true. There is a sense that everybody wants the benefits of local production or being “green” for the environment, but nobody wants to pay a higher price than we pay for goods made in China or India. I run into a similar situation with my Spoonflower fabrics. They are custom designed (by me) and printed right here in the US, and they cost a bit more than stuff at the fabric store. I try to get around that by only offering original designs you won’t find anywhere else.
What was your criteria when you were hunting for a manufacturer? How long did it take to find the right one?
Larsen: We mostly looked based on price and lowest number of units in an order. Some manufacturers start at 1000 pieces, which was too much for us. We found a manufacturer right here in New Jersey who sews all kinds of bags. Hers is a small business, too, so we really work together. She is almost mentoring us in the process. She wants to see us succeed.
JT: When you consider all of the benefits of using Snackaby versus plastic storage bags, you don’t mind paying a bit more for it. You’re not only helping the environment by reducing plastic waste, but you’re also helping small business owners and American-based manufacturers, too. And if you get your Snackaby through a promotion at a school or nonprofit, you’re helping them as well. I love it.
Well, thank you both so much for your time. You’ve got a great product with a lot of innovative thinking behind it. Best of luck to you both!
Snackaby (and its half-size cousin, the Halfaby) are currently available to the general public only from the creators in their Etsy shop. If you’re interested in organizing a fund-raising campaign for your school or non-profit using Snackaby, contact Jennifer and Jennifer through their Etsy store.