It may come as a surprise to know which big-name companies own these smaller, seemingly independent brands. Many of them did start out small — some even out of a truck or a suburban basement — but after a little bit of success, they caught the eye of their industry’s big players.
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The quirky names (Truffle Kerfuffle, anyone?) and flavor mash-ups like cinnamon and spicy fudge brownie are undoubtedly unique and might even give off the impression that the ice cream brand is independently operated. Ben & Jerry’s was founded in 1978 in Burlington, Vermont, but since 2000, it has been a subsidiary of European conglomerate Unilever, which also owns brands such as Breyer’s, Dove, Lipton and Vaseline.
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Both Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff — a professor at Yale School of Management — were in search of a flavorful beverage that wasn’t too sweet. In 1998, they launched Honest Tea out of Goldman’s kitchen in Bethesda, Maryland. The first five flavors to hit shelves were Gold Rush Cinnamon, Kashmiri Chai, Black Forest Berry, Moroccan Mint Green and Assam Black. In 2008, the year the company turned 10, Coca-Cola bought a 40% stake in Honest Tea. Then in 2011, Coca-Cola purchased the remaining 60% of the company, since operating it as an independent unit.
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You’ve probably seen S. Pellegrino’s sparkling mineral water at a restaurant — the clean, green-tinted glass bottles are a signature for the company. They also have sparkling fruit beverages in grapefruit, blood orange, lemon and more. The Italian mineral water comes off as an artisanal brand, but it’s owned by a corporate giant. In 1997, S. Pellegrino was outright purchased by Nestle, which already owned a 49% stake.
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The personal care brand’s story is as small-town as it gets. Roxanne Quimby was hitchhiking in Maine in 1984 when a local beekeeper named Burt Shavitz pulled over and offered her a ride. They hit it off and Quimby, a single mom, began making candles out of the unused wax from Shavitz’s beehives. Together they started selling candles at craft fairs and evolved into a global company. The company is no longer based in Maine and its corporate parent might surprise you: The Clorox Company. Clorox purchased Burt’s Bees in 2007.
Naked Juice began when Jimmy Rosenberg started making fruit drinks in his home and selling them on the beaches of Santa Monica, California. It was bought by PepsiCo in 2007. The company is dedicated to using no added sugar or preservatives, but a 2013 lawsuit claimed that Naked Juice products incorporate ingredients that are not “all natural” and contain GMOs. PepsiCo refuted these claims but agreed to a $9 million settlement. In a statement posted as a comment on Facebook, Naked Juice stood by its “all natural” claims but said it would no longer use the phrase on packaging.
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Stacy’s Pita Chips were already the top-selling pita chips on the market when they were acquired by PepsiCo in 2006, but the company had humble beginnings. Founder Stacy Madison ran a popular food cart in downtown Boston selling sandwiches made with fresh pita bread. To keep her hungry customers happy, she baked the leftover pita bread into seasoned pita chips and handed them out while they waited in line.
Mrs. Thelma A. Meyer — a real person and the inspiration behind the aromatherapeutic cleaning products — is a mother of nine who came up with an idea to make household cleaners friendlier and better smelling. Her daughter, Monica Nassif, created the small line and it was bought by SC Johnson in 2008.
Nantucket Nectars did originate in Nantucket, Massachusetts, when Tom First and Tom Scott met at Brown University in 1985 and headed to Nantucket to start a floating convenience store. One night, they pulled out their blender and made juice. It did not stay local, however. In 2002, Nantucket Nectars was acquired by Cadbury Schweppes and is now part of Dr Pepper Snapple Group.
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In 1970, with the help of a $5,000 loan from a friend, Tom and Kate Chappell launched their own company focused on naturally derived personal care products. And five years later, they launched the first natural toothpaste in the United States — Tom’s of Maine toothpaste. Consumers still won’t find any animal bi-products, peroxides or artificial ingredients in any of Tom’s of Maine’s items, which include deodorant, body wash and other oral care, but ownership has changed. In 2006, Tom’s of Maine was purchased by Colgate Palmolive.
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Two high school friends, Kelly Flatley and Brendan Synnott, created Bear Naked Granola in 2002 and handed out packs of it to customers in Connecticut grocery stores. Their persistence eventually lead to a buyout from The Kellogg Company (Kellogg) for a whopping $60 million.
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The raw fruit and nut bars originated when founder Lara Merriken was inspired to create a nutritious bar that could appeal to anyone, not just health food lovers. She took inspiration from ice cream flavors and other desserts and started making the bars at home, using her family and friends as taste testers. Merriken had already worked at Whole Foods Market in Denver as a buyer in the store’s nutrition department, and Whole Foods agreed to stock her bars in 2003. According to a blog post by the company, more than 1 million were sold in the first year. General Mills — hoping to continue the homemade brand’s success — bought Larabar in 2008.
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Boca Burgers could be seen as one of the first players in the vegetarian and vegan frozen foods market. The company’s signature meat-substitute patties are made primarily with soy, which is made using genetically modified ingredients. The brand now has a small line of products made exclusively with non-GMO soy to appeal to a larger and newer customer base — though the original patties are still widely available. Kraft Foods bought Boca Burger in 2000.
Cascadian Farms, which offers organic granola bars and frozen fruits and vegetables, actually began on a farm in Washington. Founder Gene Kahn was a graduate student from Chicago who became interested in organic farming. He began selling his organic foods in local markets and caught the eye of a food giant. General Mills bought the company in 2000.
Dagoba, a brand of premium organic chocolate, was founded in 2001 by Frederick Schilling in his Colorado home kitchen. Dagoba means “temple” in Sanskrit, and according to the company website, Schilling “built his own little temple of chocolate” — a small factory in Ashland, Oregon. Dagoba is Rainforest Alliance certified and is still produced in small batches at the Oregon factory. The company also continues to value the impact of local communities. However, the small-scale brand is now owned by Hershey.
Stonyfield, the organic yogurt brand, was acquired by French dairy company Lactalis for $875 million in 2017. The company is still located in New Hampshire and according to its website, Stoneyfield supports a huge network of food producers made up of hundreds of organic family farms, thousands of organic cows and more than 200,000 acres.
You might not know that the “craft" beer Blue Moon is actually owned and made by MillerCoors. It’s not unusual for big companies to want to be a part of the craft and artisanal scene, and most beer companies do it very subtly. There is no sign or packaging cue to let consumers know Blue Moon is part of a much larger brand.
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Odwalla was founded in 1980 by three musicians in Santa Cruz, California, selling fresh fruit juice from a backyard shed. In 2001, it was purchased by Coca-Cola for a whopping $181 million.
Poland Spring, a brand of bottled water produced in Poland, Maine, and named after the original natural spring-water in the town, has local roots, but the ownership is pretty large: Nestle.
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The simplistic, closet-staple brand Madewell was originally a workwear company in New Bedford, Massachusetts, that was founded in 1937. The clothes have a mom-and-pop vintage vibe — but not mom-and-pop ownership. Madewell is currently owned by J. Crew.
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RxBar started in a basement in suburban Illinois when two friends began whipping up nutrition bars. Peter Rahal, who started the company with Jared Smith, said they began selling their bars at CrossFit gyms and online — they both put in $5,000 to fund their startup. Rx protein bars are known for displaying their simple ingredients on the front of the packaging. For example, the packaging for the blueberry bar reads: three egg whites, six almonds, four cashews, two dates, “No B.S.” Kellogg purchased the Chicago-based company for $600 million in 2018.
Justin’s nut butters have a pretty humble success story considering the brand is now owned by Hormel, which makes Skippy. Justin Gold, the namesake and founder of the spreads, squeeze packs and chocolate peanut butter cups, began by making experimental nut butters with a food processor in his Boulder, Colorado, kitchen in 2004. He started selling batches of his all-natural, high-quality spreads at the Boulder Farmers’ Market, then convinced local retailers to allow him to stock their shelves and demo the nut butters in store. In 2016, Justin’s was purchased by Hormel Foods for $286 million.
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According to Coca-Cola's 2018 Annual Report, the company made $31.86 billion in revenue in 2018. And though Coca-Cola is the leading carbonated beverage conglomerate, it fares well in noncarbonated drinks and enhanced waters, too. Smartwater, produced by Glaceau, was purchased by Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion in 2007.
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The beauty and body care company started in Brighton, England, in 1976 and is known for using ethically sourced ingredients and a variety of naturally inspired products like tea tree oil serums and shea body butters. The Body Shop was purchased by cosmetic giant L’Oreal in 2006 and acquired by Brazilian cosmetics company Natura in 2017.
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Cape Cod Potato Chips began in a New England kitchen when two small business owners decided they wanted to sell the kettle-cooked chips they had been making for years. In 1989, they opened up shop in Hyannis, Massachusetts, and became a local favorite. But they didn’t stay a local brand — Cape Cod Chips was acquired by Campbell Soup Co. in December 2017 for a massive $4.9 billion.
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If you’re a fan of fermented probiotic drinks and kombucha, then you’re probably familiar with KeVita — the sparkling beverage in a glass bottle that contains less than 50 calories per serving and no artificial sugars. From the looks of it, you'd never guess that KeVita is actually owned by PepsiCo. KeVita was founded in 2009 and bought out in 2016 by the beverage conglomerate.
Zico founder Mark Rampolla left his corporate career in 2004 to create coconut water after volunteering with the Peace Corps in Central America and seeing how the locals regularly drank the replenishing natural water. He started by selling it out of a van to New York City yoga studios. In 2009, Coca-Cola invested in Zico after Rampolla’s startup became a leader in the plant-based water market. And in 2013, Coca-Cola acquired the brand completely.
San Diego-based Ballast Point Brewing Company started with a group of homebrewers selling their creations in 1996 and has grown into a popular craft ale brand. In 2015, it was bought by Constellation Brands Inc. — which also owns Corona — for $1 billion.
Annie’s Homegrown co-founder Annie Withey started the company by selling mac and cheese from her car trunk in 1989. The brand best known for the colorful packaging and cute little bunny is still made with organic pasta, but it isn’t exactly “homegrown” or independent, as the boxes might suggest. Annie’s Homegrown was purchased by General Mills for $820 million in 2014.
Brookside's chocolate-covered fruit balls with goji, acai, blueberry and pomegranate aren’t packaged as if they’re mainstream, but the brand is now owned by Hershey. For more success stories like Brookside, read about the very humble beginnings of some of the world's biggest businesses.
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