Diana Levy, our NJMOMpreneur of the week, had always been obsessed with chocolate and being healthy, so much that she started a small business making chocolate-covered treats. But, a few years later, when two of her daughters were diagnosed with celiac disease, Diana saw a space in the market for high-quality, gluten-free chocolate and knew she had to fill it. She experimented, taste-tested, and used her daughter’s friends as guinea pigs, until she came up with the perfect combo of crispy organic quinoa with just the right amount of dark or milk chocolate. Today Undercover Snacks is sold in 10,000 stores (it’s even served on United flights) and has added more flavor combos, including blueberries, currants, peppermint, and pumpkin spice. We chatted with this very busy Short Hills mom of three to discuss her one regret, how being a local business helped during the pandemic, and where to get the best sushi in town.
Diana Levy, our NJMOMpreneur of the Week, with her husband Mike and Undercover Snacks.
Tell us a little bit about your family. My husband, Michael, and I got married in 1994, and we have three daughters, Arielle, 23, and twins Jenna and Elana, 20. Though we originally lived in Montclair and loved it, we moved to Short Hills for the school system, NYC mid-town commute, and walkable downtown area.
What was your career background before Undercover Snacks, and how has it helped you with your business? Before my kids were born, I changed direction a bunch of times. I worked in news broadcasting, public relations, campaigning, and finance for a while. I was also going to law school when I had Arielle, followed by the twins, so with three kids in diapers, I threw up my hands, gave up on law school, and went all in with the kids. Even though I’ve experienced so much change, I’ve learned from every experience. My PR skills come in handy all the time but especially when I’m writing or dealing with publicity or media. Campaign work taught me to multitask, keep all the balls in the air and prioritize. And, my financial background helps when dealing with financial management. Also, I can’t tell you how much law school has given me a base understanding of the law and helped me with contracts with distributors, brokers, and landlords.
Please share the “aha moment” that led you to launch Undercover Snacks. There wasn’t one moment, but I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and as my kids were getting older, the timing started to feel right. I have always loved chocolate, and because Mike had experience working with food manufacturers and contacts, I started with a small chocolate business. In 2016, two of my daughters were diagnosed with celiac disease, and I was determined to find a gluten-free, high-quality chocolate snack for them. So I experimented and eventually found the perfect flavor combination in chocolate-covered quinoa crisps. The combination filled a white space in the market and set my company apart from other chocolate businesses. At first, I made Undercover in small batches on my own in a rented commercial kitchen. As sales quickly grew, I knew I needed to find a way to increase production. While I considered using a co-manufacturer, I ultimately decided it was essential to control the quality and the manufacturing process. That’s when Michael joined as the Chairman of Undercover. Together we opened a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in East Hanover that is certified gluten-free and peanut and tree-nut-free.
How supportive is your family? From day one, my husband has been unbelievably supportive, cheering me on every step of the way. He saw so many people with ideas become enormous companies in his prior business, so he knew it was possible and encouraged me to create a scalable business. But, my kids were initially another story. I’d use their friends as my focus group and as taste testers, and all three of them were a little embarrassed about it all until it got into stores. Then, their friends talked about it, and the kids flipped directions and were entirely on board with what I was doing. Now, my older daughter does marketing and social media for us, and my other daughters are brand ambassadors. Though it didn’t start that way, everyone has wholly embraced the business and the brand.
Looking back to the start of your business, is there anything you might have done differently? I do regret not starting sooner. It took me years to go from a small chocolate business to where we are now. The benefit to just going for it is that you might see an opening in the market that you wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t started.
Was there an adjustment period working with your husband? It probably took about a year for us not to step on each other’s toes. He was used to running his business while I ran the household, and in meetings, he wasn’t used to stepping back. But then, after about a year, the business snowballed that we were doing different things all day, with no overlap. So, while we work together and interact in industry, he manages and deals with his things, while I do the same with mine, and we no longer step on each other’s toes at all.
How have you grown in the last five years? Did the pandemic affect your business? We’ve grown from a small company to one that manufactures 40,000 bags of product a day, and we’re doubling that very soon. Our clients include United Airlines, and we are in over 10,000 stores in the United States. Our products are also sold in Canada, Singapore, and Israel and expanding to more countries in the next year. Surprisingly, the pandemic helped our business grow substantially, mainly because we do our own manufacturing and source all things in the US, so we had no supply chain issues. We were able to assure distributors that our products were available quickly, and they gave us more shelf space when other suppliers were experiencing delays and delivery issues. We acquired new clients because we could meet their needs, and I met more people virtually (rather than flying to meet them), which helped with growth.
Is owning a business different than what you expected? I didn’t expect it to be so all-encompassing. I thought that if you grow big, you hire a manager, and you take those responsibilities off your plate. But the truth is that the buck always stops with you. At the end of the day, the others go home, and you have to pick up any loose threads and take care of any missing pieces.
Are there any charities or causes that are important to you? Since I’m a mom of two daughters with celiac disease, anything related to celiac or food allergies is important to me. We’re very fortunate to donate to food pantries in the area, particularly to the Community Food Bank of NJ and Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges. We donate thousands of pounds of product a year to them. And there are other local and regional charities that I support as well.
Would you please share some of your favorite local businesses and why you love them? Kings Supermarket is a favorite, even before they were as supportive of my business as they are. The one in Short Hills is fantastic! They always have new and exciting products that they carry. I’m also a big fan of Willow Street in Summit. I don’t have much free time to spare, and I can walk in and out quickly with things that I love. And Sakura, a sushi restaurant in Short Hills, is fantastic—they are great at keeping things gluten-free for my family.
What advice do you have for an NJMOMpreneur just starting? Don’t worry about whether your idea is a completely crystallized business plan. Just get going on a small level, and you’ll fill in the pieces and learn as you go.