When Ian and Jessica Saultz relocated back to the U.S. from Germany a few years ago – with two toddlers in tow – they were beyond disappointed with the snack options available for children. Stateside noshes were crumbly and messy and full of sugar. They paled in comparison to the refined, healthy treats their family was accustomed to overseas.
Jessica talk to her children’s pediatrician about this concern as well as the moms on the playground, asking anyone she could find what snacks they recommended.
“But no one really gave me an answer,” she said.
A problem-solver by nature, Jessica’s first response was to order snacks from Germany.
Born and raised there, Jessica spent her years prior to motherhood as a bio process engineer, but grew up with a backyard full of fresh fruits and vegetables. She had no exceptional kitchen skills, but thought if other people could make healthy, mess-free snacks, maybe she could, too.
“I started in the kitchen, working on a ton of recipes,” she said. “We decided to have our starting flavors be strawberry, blueberry and mango. Those are a good base, what most kids would like. We worked on hundreds and hundreds of recipes until we finally figured out the ones that work.”
Jessica’s idea was to see what happens; however, Ian, her husband, who she met and married in the U.S., is a software engineer with business experience and pushed her to see that maybe her recipes could turn into something more than a family snack.
What soon evolved was Dino Bars, a brand of the Functional Food Co. The organic, all-natural and allergen-free fruit bars are a hit with toddlers for their yummy taste — and with parents for their mess-free packaging. Each bar comes wrapped in edible paper.
Since the couple officially launched their business in May 2020, they have sold more than 500,000 bars nationwide, grown to 10 employees and have outgrown two facilities on James Island.
Other than posting about their product on Instagram, the business-to-client growth is all from word of mouth.
“We’d like to do more, but we also can’t just because we’re keeping up with how quickly we’re growing really just through word of mouth,” Ian said. “We have to manage all these other aspects that doing aggressive marketing is honestly a little scary at this point.”
Jessica still can’t help but laugh at how surreal the success is. The business was only supposed to be a flexible side job until her children went back to school.
“If I go back into my field, I’m going to have to work full-time, and I didn’t feel comfortable doing that with two young kids,” she said. “I think that’s when my mind started switching over to maybe this could be a business because then I can control my hours, and I don’t have to work for somebody else, and I can figure out kids and work.”
In less than two years, Dino Bars is already turning a profit, and to keep up with demand, earnings need to be re-invested in the company to facilitate growth, Ian said. He wishes he could dedicate more time to Dino Bars and go full-time with Jessica, but investment means that he needs to straddle both his full-time software job and his small, family-owned business for the foreseeable future.
For his part in the company, Ian handles the business and regulatory side of Dino Bars, including food production and understanding the highly regulated, and rather intimidating, food industry. He admits he’s the type that enjoys sitting around reading laws and regulations for fun.
“Ian is much more the person in the relationship that’s business thinking,” Jessica said. “I’m more the person who’s going to stand in the kitchen and see what comes out of it.”
Jessica might play down her role, but her prior experience in the pharmaceutical industry is relevant. She had a heavy hand in quality assurance and the production process, which led to rigorous quality assurance and guidelines for Dino Bars. It was with her knowledge that she pushed for an external facility for food production so that the bars could be made in a completely allergen-free facility.
The mom of three — as well as editor and recipe developer for magazines, books and websites — is proactive about helping families come up with fun foods that are healthy and straightforward.
“It’s always been really hard to find a snack bar for a 1-year-old that is easy to chew, doesn’t fall apart and is made with not a ton of ingredients,” she said.
When Dino Bars hit the market, Palanjian was excited. Unlike crumbly NutriGrain type bars that she felt only tasted sweet, Dino Bars flavors were simple, tasted like fruit, and the bars were easy for her young ones to eat.
The snack became an easy solution for parents, and Palanjian spread word across her social media platforms.
While the social media mom does a lot of sponsored work, Palanjian said she typically works through her manager and PR firm, and rarely has direct access to clients. But she enjoys connecting with Ian and Jessica, as both parents and small business owners of a product she genuinely supports.
Dino Bars may have huge followers, but the Saultz pride themselves on the smallness of their business. In the beginning, it was just Ian and Jessica for the first four months or so, which helped them figure out what worked and how best they worked.
Up next for the parents and co-founders is securing a much larger facility in the Charleston area, and aggressively pursuing regional and national chains to get Dino Bars into grocery stores. The current business model only accounts for sales on the company’s website and Amazon.
The company has grown faster than Jessica and Ian expected to, far beyond the days when it was just the two of them working together those first few months.
“With every person that then comes, they bring some ideas and it has been working out very well, being very open,” Jessica said. “We’re all on the same level. Let’s talk about it and see how we can all improve the company and make things even better.”