An upstart Boston candy company is counting on taste, organic and natural ingredients — and a little support from a local sports superstar — to help it have a very sweet Halloween.
UnReal Brands Inc. said its sales surged after Patriots quarterback Tom Brady last Friday released a video declaring he had hidden autographs and other surprises in 50 buckets of its candy at Whole Foods stores throughout New England. Fans — of both football and candy — responded.
"The reach has been huge," Michael Bronner, the company founder, said of the video, which has been viewed 1.7 million times. "We were sold out. Our team, from 5 a.m. [Wednesday], went and restocked the shelves on our own."
The pre-Halloween surge, company officials hope, marks a turnaround for Unreal. After a disappointing launch in 2012, the company has reworked their product line and refocused its strategy, shifting from getting on the candy shelves of supermarkets everywhere to concentrating on organic and health food specialty stores and the natural food aisles of major chains.
Today, UnReal candy is available at 2,000 stores, including Whole Foods, Target, Star Market, and Kroger outlets, and dozens of independent retailers. The privately held company, which employs 10, declined to disclose sales or other financial information.
"From our failures, we figured out what to do to succeed," Bronner said. "We're going slower. We're thinking big, and acting small."
As Halloween approaches, the company is hoping new products, revamped branding, and targeted distribution will lure candy fans away from more conventional confections.
It all started six years ago when Bronner's son Nicky, then 12, discovered his parents had confiscated most of his Halloween candy, saying it was too unhealthy. He set out to prove them wrong. To his dismay, his research supported his parents.
"The thing I really remember is him screaming, 'Why is it that everything we love the most has to be so bad for us? It doesn't have to be that way,' " said Bronner.
So Bronner, the entrepreneur behind advertising agency Digitas and college savings program Upromise, and his son decided to solve the confectionery conundrum. The goal: avoid corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, and artificial flavors and preservatives without compromising flavor.
After two years of working with local chefs to achieve the right balance of healthier ingredients and taste, they had four better-for-you options mimicking old favorites: M&Ms, Snickers, Milky Ways, and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.
UnReal candy hit the shelves in 30,000 stores in 2012, and attracted admirers, including Brady and his wife, Gisele Bundchen, but not enough buyers to support so many locations.
"It just didn't work out as we expected it to," said Nicky, now 18. "We were in too many stores."
So they regrouped. They decided to narrow their focus to peanut butter cups and M&M-esque candy-coated chocolate drops, but with modern twists. For example, the new line, manufactured in Vancouver, British Columbia, includes two varieties of peanut butter cups: puffed quinoa, and dark chocolate and coconut.
They updated packaging, switching from a black color scheme to bright and playful colors. Unreal's website features endorsements from celebrities including Brady, Bundchen, and Matt Damon. The company would not disclose whether they were investors.
"There are zero paid endorsements," Bronner said. "They got involved because of the mission."
UnReal is in the forefront of a growing interest in "better-for-you" candy, said Bob Burke, a natural products consultant based in Andover.
"The whole trend around people seeking out healthier products has been going on for quite a long time," he said, "and it's only picking up steam."
Major confectioners are trying to stake out a claim in the niche, said Crystal Lindell, managing editor of a trade publication, Candy Industry magazine. Mars has Goodnessknows snack squares, reminiscent of chocolate-dipped granola, and Hershey's Brookside brand offers chocolate-covered dried fruits.
Still, observers said, a lot of variables must work out for UnReal to succeed, taste chief among them. But there's evidence this has been covered.
Kimberley Rose, vice president of purchasing at Whole Foods, said tasting the candy convinced her to stock it. But the challenge will be convincing customers that candy can and should be healthy — or at least healthier.
UnReal, Lindell said, is well positioned to face these challenges: "They are definitely on the cutting edge of where candy could be headed."
Sarah Shemkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.