Keith Belling quit his job as a corporate lawyer at age 27 and spent the next 15 years running a series of businesses, including a restaurant chain and a website for small businesses.
In 2005, he set out to create a new snack with one of his former employees, and after four months, the pair stumbled upon a rice cake manufacturing plant outside of Los Angeles.
Mr. Belling observed how a high-pressure cooking technique popped the rice like popcorn, and he realized that popping was the way to create a healthy chip that still had flavor.
The pair bought the manufacturing plant for less than $10 million in October 2005. Their product, Popchips, hit store shelves in May 2007, initially just on the West Coast. Popchips—which sell for about $2.80 a bag—are now carried in 25,000 retail stores around the world, including the U.K. Mr. Belling is planning to bring them to France, Belgium, the Netherlands, as well as other countries.
Annual sales at Popchips, which is based in San Francisco, have more than doubled over the past two years to roughly $93 million.
To distinguish Popchips from the hundreds of other foods in the snack aisle, Mr. Belling focused on word-of-mouth and grass-roots marketing. Starting in New York and later in 15 other cities, he sent bags of Popchips to thousands of influential individuals, ranging from fashion designers to event planners. He also sent free Popchips to every employee at companies like Amazon.com Inc., AMZN +0.57% Nike Inc. NKE +1.61% and J. Crew Group Inc.
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Such efforts gained the attention of celebrity investors like actor Ashton Kutcher, who wrote his first check to Popchips Inc. in 2010. Mr. Belling declines to say how much was invested. Other celebrity investors followed suit, including fashion model Heidi Klum, fitness trainer Jillian Michaels and Boston Red Sox baseball player David Ortiz.