When they’re delivered, the boxes look almost like a regular package: Plain brown cardboard, small enough to fit in the mailbox. But these aren’t regular packages, because inside, there are snacks—delicious snacks, healthy snacks, curated just for you, and in perfect portions to boot. They are Graze boxes, and they’re popping up in offices everywhere.
Graze is the brainchild of a group of UK-based men who, a decade ago, were looking for a smarter way to snack. They were tired of the chips and candy they found around their offices, and wanted a healthier option. Some of them had founded the Netflix-like DVD rental service LoveFilm, and that led to an idea: What if they married technology with snacking?
So the seven men quit their jobs and got to work on what would become Graze. The company, which launched in the UK in 2008, sent its 20 millionth box there in 2012; two years ago, it expanded to the United States. “Word of mouth got around. There were waiting lists,” says Shelly Huang, Graze’s head of U.S. Consumer Marketing. Initially, the company shipped boxes from the UK, but it wasn’t long before demand became too great. Graze built a factory here. “Two years later, here we are,” Huang says. “We have two offices in Jersey City and in Manhattan. We have hundreds of thousands of subscribers that love our snacks. We’re having a lot of fun.”
Graze has more than 100 snacks, and the site uses a proprietary algorithm called DARWIN (Decision Algorithm Rating What Ingredient's Next) to tailor each snack box to each individual subscriber based on their personal preferences. “When you sign up, you can go through the whole entire range of snacks and rate them,” Huang says. There are four options: Love, like, try, and trash. Users can also use the “My Preferences” section to alert the company to allergies, intolerances, or dietary restrictions.
The algorithm remembers those preferences for future boxes, and tries to pack in a good balance of what you’ve liked before, new snacks, and an even spread of sweet and savory treats. And the more you use the rating system, the more awesome your box will be. “The more a subscriber interacts, the better his or her options become,” says Eva Scofield, whose title at Graze is, awesomely, Snack Huntress. “Because it is a similarity-based algorithm system, it opens up those options.” Graze offers four-snack variety boxes and eight-snack variety boxes, but if variety isn’t your thing, you can select a box of all one product, or get sharing bags for bigger groups.
The company has a big board that tracks snack ratings. Scofield is always looking at the ratings, seeing how snacks rate before a person receives them versus how they clock in afterward, and, if a rating has gone down, analyzing why that might have happened. And as you might imagine, DARWIN reveals a lot about how people snack, and what they like. “We’ve found a lot of the tastes are regionally-based, which is really interesting,” Scofield says. “For example, the New York Everything Bagel snack does the best in the northeastern region. It’s almost like it creates this sense of pride, and we have that with a lot of our other products. We have things like southwestern corn crunch, or Louisiana wild rice and beans. So, it’s a cute little endearing metric that we find, that people embrace these snacks that we name after the regions by which they were inspired, and then in fact, you end up loving them.”
Among the most popular snacks are the company’s flapjacks—based on a UK snack—and its deconstructed desserts (mental_floss got deconstructed carrot cake, and it was yummy). “One of our most popular snacks is the whole-grain banana caramel dippers, and it’s been likened to Dunkaroos of our childhood,” Scofield says. “So, there’s a playful aspect to it all. You’re healthy and you’re nourishing yourself, and it’s for sustenance, but you’re also having fun with it.”
As Graze’s Snack Huntress, Scofield’s job is part analyzing trends, part traveling the world looking for the best and tastiest ingredients. “I’m constantly going to food shows all over the country and trying to stay on top of what’s popular, what people are into, but still kind of maintaining what’s healthy,” she says.
Creating a snack, of course, starts with finding the right ingredients. “If there’s one particular ingredient that I find really interesting, I’ll get in direct touch with the vendor and negotiate pricing and shipping logistics, and work out whether or not it’s a standalone product,” Scofield says. “Then I can dig into our entire library of existing products and decide, OK, these two flavor trends are really hot right now. Will they go together well?” If she thinks they will, she figures out exactly, down to the gram, how much of each ingredient will go into the snack pack and then continues to negotiate costs with the vendor. “I’m also in constant touch with the UK team,” she says, “because we often bounce ideas off each other to see, is this U.S.-specific, or do we want this in both geographies? Iit’s an ongoing, exciting little adventure.”
All the while, Scofield is also testing the snacks on her coworkers, gathering their feedback and tweaking the snacks based on that. She also enjoys walking around the office with weird ingredients and making her coworkers try them. One such ingredient was the mung bean sprout. Scofield had met a man from Colorado who soaked the beans in water until they sprouted, then roasted them with different spices and flavorings. “He just puts them in a bag, and if you did a blind taste test, it would be like eating a bag of potato chips, but it is exponentially more healthy for you,” she says. “It’s incredible. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve found, being here.” Huang says the Graze team “couldn’t stop eating it.” The biggest challenge now is figuring it out how to package the beans.
The time from concept to deployment varies greatly. “It can be a matter of three months, if we’re using the same ingredients, we already have pricing, we have supply chain down,” Scofield says. “I’ve been here for a little over a year, and there are still products that I started my first month in that I’m working on. We really want to be sure that we’re as proud as we can be about our product before we put it out. If that means having to wait a little while, we’d rather do that than force it out.”
Even after deployment, there’s fine-tuning: For example, Scofield says, “We’ve got really good ratings on the combination of kale and edamame, but we’re finding that the kale itself doesn’t actually ship well, and due to its fragile nature, we actually had to reformulate the entire product.” Because they love kale, they’re attempting to create a Kale Caesar salad snack.
Scofield says that she sometimes has to be reeled in “because I have, like, big wacky ideas about weird stuff that we could do.” Right now, she’s looking into making snacks out of seaweed. “It’s becoming a really popular ingredient, just due to its sustainability—sustainability in food sources is a really hot topic right now,” she says. She’d also love to incorporate insect flour into Graze’s snacks. “Eighty percent of the world eats insects on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “The United States is one of the few countries left in the world that’s not familiar with eating insects, and so, if it was up to me, I’d love to start introducing insect protein as an option in the range. But I think that we’re pretty far off from making that a reality.”
You can sign up for Graze here; use the code MENTALFLOSS to get one box free!