As a teenager, Pete Maldonado grew up eating the snacks most often found in the checkout aisle of convenience and drug stores. He loved the portability of the foods, the mix of sweet and savory, and that he could eat them anywhere, anytime. Flash forward eight years, Maldonado — then 20 years old and working as a personal trainer — wanted to practice what he preached, and started taking the time to understand ingredients and food labeling. Reading the following three words on his favorite meat snack, “mechanically separated chicken,” changed his entire attitude toward food. He knew that he needed to know more about both ingredients and nutrition to do better by his clients as a trainer.
But as Pete Maldonado steadily improved his personal diet and those of his clients, he still longed for the taste and satisfaction of his favorite jerky snack. So, after 10 years as a personal trainer, at the start of 2012, he decided to create his own. He knew he wanted to create a snack stick made from high-quality meats that were certified non-GMO and free of unnecessary additives. Upon further research into creating his ideal snack, he found there was a big difference between meat that was “grass-fed,” and meat that was both “grass-fed and finished.” He learned the latter was far superior and decided to create a food snack with this as the foundation. He found a local food manufacturer and by December 2012, Chomps was born in Chicago.
A month after launching the Chomps site, the brand’s snack sticks were selling briskly as the brand had found an audience. Chomps was pure entrepreneur gold: with just a co-packer for his snacks and his friend (an e-commerce consultant) Rashid Ali moonlighting as Chomp’s finance manager, Pete Maldonado built Chomps into a multi-million dollar business in a few years. Within months Chomps became of the fastest-selling snacks at Trader Joe’s. In 2017, with Maldonado still the company’s only full-time employee, Chomps sold nearly $10 million dollars worth of meat snacks. This year, 2018, Chomps started selling in retailers like Safeway, Albertsons, Fresh Thyme and 7-Eleven and introduced a new turkey variety. And as the brand continues to grow, Pete finally decided to hire a few people to help him take the business to the next level.
How did you get started in the food business? Were you ever a server or a bartender?
Pete Maldonado: I was actually a personal trainer. I was designing diet plans and grocery lists for clients but found that I had a very low percentage of clients that would follow the plan. I thought there had to be a better way and I had the idea to create prepared meals that clients could pick up at the gym in one of the glass-top freezers that we placed. Our freezers were in gyms throughout Florida and Georgia. This was back in 2008 before all of the many meal delivery programs existed so it wasn’t as easy then to get restaurant-quality, prepared meals.
What specifically got you into organic and non-GMO dining?
Pete Maldonado: This also was influenced by my work as a personal trainer. I learned a ton about nutrition and the big difference in micronutrients between organic and non-GMO foods and the unnecessary chemicals that could be avoided by eating this way.
Was the plan all along for Chomps to make non-GMO food? Are there extra steps in order to make that happen?
Pete Maldonado: The plan was to create the healthiest meat snacks we possibly could with the cleanest available ingredients and using the best methods of processing. We went through a few different iterations to get the formulas to where they are today including changing where we source the raw materials In order to get non-GMO Project Verified, our products and every ingredient we use was fully audited. It took a long time to get through the process, but we’re proud to be one of the first in the category to achieve it.
What role did Chicago play in the founding of Chomps?
Pete Maldonado: This was where the company was started, out of my spare bedroom in my South Loop apartment. It’s also where I met our co-founder Rashid Ali. We also found a nearby Midwestern co-manufacturer to help us make the product that we still work with today.
Does your meat come from Chicago or the nearby area?
Pete Maldonado: No, we source the beef from Tasmania, the venison from New Zealand, and the turkey here in the U.S. All of our products are made here in the Midwest, though.
What is coming up for Chomps in the coming months?
Pete Maldonado: We have some big launches into some of the largest national retailers and we’ll be releasing some new innovation, including new flavors of our existing snack sticks and some totally new products outside of meat snacks.
Do you have a favorite of the Chomps varieties available?
Pete Maldonado: I personally love the new Italian Beef flavor, which we haven’t released yet. We’re really excited about having our customers try it!
When not busy with Chomps, how do you like to spend your free time?
Pete Maldonado: I love to hang out with my wife and 2-year-old son. He swims like a little fish, so we spend a lot of time in the pool and he also loves planes, so we go to the airport a lot to watch them “take off, off, off,” as he would say.
What was the last concert you attended for fun?
Pete Maldonado: Oh man, it’s been a while. I think it was Jimmy Buffett and the Zac Brown Band in Chicago at the Northerly Island amphitheater. Great concert!
Do you have a favorite restaurant in the Chicago area?
Pete Maldonado: Oh yeah, sure do! Of all the steakhouses in Chicago, I still prefer Mastro’s; not going to lie, it might have something to do with the butter cake. If it’s Italian, RPM Italian is great and we just did our company holiday party there a few weeks ago.
Finally, Pete, any last words for the kids?
Pete Maldonado: If you’re considering launching a food or beverage brand, Chicago is a great place to do it! It has been home to some very large CPG companies and over the last five, six years, it’s become a hotbed for thriving start-ups. Everything you need to be successful is right here including great talent and accessible funding — although I suggest waiting to raise for as long as you possibly can.
Curious about Chomps’ success across the nation? Check them out in Inc.’s video below of the best products of 2018.