Some years ago, Oakland resident Vincent Kitirattragarn was making a dish to sell at the San Francisco Underground Farmers Market. Kitirattragarn mother had given him the recipe for a Northern Thai dish called miang kum, in which young ginger, peanuts, fried shallots, dried shrimp and sometimes a protein — in this case, braised short ribs — are wrapped in a lettuce leaf along with toasted coconut.
Kitirattragarn was toasting a huge batch of coconut — 20 pounds at a time — and as the coconut chips went from raw and gritty to crisp and caramelized, a wonderful aroma filled the house.
He had been thinking about going into the food business, and had already ruled out working in a restaurant, as well as starting a food truck. And then, amid the scent of toasting coconut, inspiration struck. He realized he had never seen pre-toasted coconut for sale.
Kitirattragarn’s brother Andrew happened to be in Thailand at the time. Vincent sent a message to Andrew, asking him to look for toasted coconut chips. Andrew brought some samples home, and in 2012, a company — Dang Foods — was born.
Dang Toasted Coconut Chips now come in six flavors: regular, bacon, salted, chili lime, caramel sea salt and cacao nib. They are the number one selling coconut chip in the country, with a 65% market share of the vegetable and fruit chip category. Dang Chips also won the highest-ever “liking score” from Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Lab and they won a best snack sofi award from the Specialty Food Association in 2014.
The snacks are sold in 7,000 retail stores across the country, like Whole Foods, Sprouts Farmers Markets and Target, as well as locally in Berkeley Bowl and others. Dang also sells its snacks on Amazon, and it gives them away at many technology companies as part of their free snacks program.
How the Berkeley-based company grew so fast in the past four years is a story of good timing, hard work and luck, but the Kitirattragarn brothers come from a family of entrepreneurs, and their father is now helping them a bit with the business as well.
Kitirattragarn’s grandparents are all Chinese, but his parents were both born in Thailand. They emigrated to New York, and there they started an Asian silk flower import business. Later, the couple divorced, and Kitirattragarn’s father started importing candles from Thailand. Pottery Barn is his largest customer.
The snacks are named after Kitirattragarn’s mother, whose name is Dang, as she was the source of inspiration for the coconut chips. Yet Kitirattragarn also said that customers should be thinking, “Dang, that’s good!” after trying his products.
Once Kitirattragarn had a product to his liking, he attended the Specialty Food Association’s trade show, The Fancy Food Show. He didn’t have packaging yet, and it was much too early for him to pay for a booth, so he walked around in stealth mode, handing out samples to whomever would take them. And here’s where he got lucky — one of those people who took his samples was an associate buyer for a large region of Whole Foods.
“We still work together. … He remembers me going up to him and feels responsible for helping steward me. He was the first person I met, and it happened that he makes decisions for the biggest region in the United States when it comes to Whole Foods,” said Kitirattragarn.
The company is a certified B Corporation, which means that while Dang Foods is a for-profit company, it has a social mission as well. Dang Foods holds sustainability as a core value. For example, the by-products of its coconut meat are used for charcoal and other coconut products; it ships its products using Coyote Logistics, a certified EPA SmartWay Transport partner; its headquarters is powered by solar energy; and the company engages with farmer communities in Thailand and the Ivory coast in order to improve worker conditions.
In addition to the popular coconut chips, Dang Foods has recently launched a new line of onion chips, which also come in multiple flavors: sea salt, salt-n-pepper, applewood BBQ and chipotle garlic.
Unlike the coconut chips, which now have plenty of (untoasted) competition on the market, the onion chips have only one competitor: Funyuns, by Frito-Lay. But the onion flavor is where the similarity ends. Funyuns are primarily made from corn, and are highly processed. They resemble onion rings in shape, are made with an extruder, and are primarily sold in convenience stores.
Kitirattragarn is not looking to compete in the convenience store market. Dang’s onion chips, which are made with a minimal amount of ingredients (the sea salt flavor includes just onions, canola oil, tapioca dextrin and sea salt). “It’s made from real onion, and can be recognized as an onion,” he said. “We’re also not chipping it up into tiny pieces and putting it back together with an extruder.”
The onions are vacuum-fried, which means they are cooked in oil at low temperature and pressure, and then spun in a centrifuge so they retain less oil. With four grams of fiber per serving, Kitirattragarn says they should sell well among those who know the health properties of onions and don’t worry as much about fat.
Onions are a staple food in so many cuisines, and in the U.S. they are the third-highest selling fresh vegetable (behind potatoes and corn), so Kitirattragarn is hoping the onion chips follow the rise of the coconut chips.
While the headquarters of Dang Foods is in Berkeley, it only has office space here. All of its products are all made abroad. “We contract with factories abroad, four in Thailand and one in Vietnam,” said Kitirattragarn. We aggregate from many different small farms.”
The coconut chips are made from young Thai coconuts, and they are certified non-GMO. However, neither the coconut chips nor the onion chips are organic. Kitirattragarn said that it’s nearly impossible for Thai farmers to get organic certification, but they do not use pesticides.
He added that both the onions and coconuts have been tested for pesticide residue and have come up clean; coconuts are naturally grown following organic methods, and the natural gasses of onions keep pests away without needing additional chemical assistance. These facts, however, mean that Dang Foods can’t be certified organic, which has held them up from getting into certain grocers who want to carry more organic snacks.
While Kitirattragarn believes the company’s success has benefitted coconut’s increased perception as a health food, he believes social media can also take partial credit as well. The product photographs well — Dang fans love to post the dishes they create, each with the coconut chips sprinkled prominently on top.
“On Pinterest and Instagram, there are beautiful food porn shots of it that fans have taken,” he said.
A word of caution from this writer: The onion chips are a good snack, but the coconut chips are better, addictive even. I couldn’t stop eating them. Be careful.
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