Originals

09/21/2012

Hungry For More

We sit down with Keith Mullin, founder and sole operator of Gamer Grub.

By: Yannick LeJacq

Filed Under: Industry Interview Life

Describing Gamer Grub to people not versed in video games elicits wary reactions of confusion or outright disgust. The same kind of disgust many of us have come to expect from what the company’s founder and sole employee Keith Mullin calls the standard “high school experience” nerds suffer through. The company’s sole product is a trail mix packaged in plastic pouches specially designed to allow users to pour it straight into their mouths, sort of the way one tries to tap out the last remaining morsels from a bag of popcorn or chips. The benefit for anyone who’s spent long nights in front of the screen harvesting loot and killing monsters is obvious: no mess, no time lost, and none of the corresponding embarrassment of spilling food on your keyboard.

At the same time, the fact that a product like this actually exists could also confirm a lot of ugly stereotypes. “Gamers” themselves are rarely noted for their health, personal hygiene, open-mindedness, or even their continued relevance as a subculture. And while I’m frustrated with the awkwardness of even eating at my desk at work, I couldn’t shake the feeling when I tried Gamer Grub that I was realizing The Onion’s grim prediction that all Americans will soon be wearing fast food “feedbags.” With a slight tendency for enigma, Gamer Grub’s origin seems to stem from the massive industry expos like E3, E for All, and PAX, that are often noted for their own tendency for excess (see: booth babes, marketing budgets, Minecraft parties). Mullin recognizes these concerns, but sees the problem resting more with the stigma against gamers than the subculture itself. I got in touch with him to speak about the history of his company, the inspiration he found in trashcans, and what he hopes gamers and snack creators alike will look like in the future.

What brought you into this in the first place? What were you doing before you started Gamer Grub?

I was actually attending gaming conventions consistently. I went to E3 every year, back when it was really big before it split in two. And then I went to E for All, when they had SEAL teams jumping out of helicopters at the stadium…all that. I was designing gaming peripherals—lighting chairs, boom chairs, interactive-type peripherals for gaming. I was already designing consumer products. That’s when I came up against this problem: “Ok, I don’t like it when I get grease on my fingers when I’m sitting here working 12 or 14 hours a day.”

I’m the founder and inventor. We launched it at the E for All Convention in 2008, because we sponsored the World Cyber Games that year for the American finals. That really put us on the map, when we did that, we came out of nowhere—we got two millions hits to our website, we were on ABC News, press started coming in right when we started. It was pretty crazy.

Were you a gamer yourself?

Yeah, I was pretty much designing code at C-level when I was 13. I’ve always been involved in technology. Back then, the internet didn’t exist. The computer systems…it was beginning stuff. And then from that, there were the arcade type of games that I was involved in as a teenager pretty heavily. Most recent, I would say, was Unreal Tournament, with a full LAN system that we would set up. We would have ten-plus terminals, everybody tweaking out for a couple days.

What games do you really remember falling in love with?

I think it really comes down to the ones that you start dreaming about, thinking about even when you’re driving the car. You start daydreaming about strategy. That mostly happened with Unreal Tournament, when I was doing it 20, 25-hours plus.

This was the original one, with the “MONSTER KILL” and everything, right?

Yeah!

Unreal Tournament was a very competitive game even though it missed out on the institutionalization of professional competition. Did you have competitive gamers in mind when you were developing Gamer Grub?

I think my first MLG tournament was during the R&D process. I went to the competitive events and I actually dug through the trashcans, to understand what was happening at that event. You can find out so much about a society from what they put in the trash. I would spend a lot of time watching and listening to see what happens in a competitive environment. And that’s when I saw the things gamers needed: It’s gotta be mobile, it’s gotta be quick, it’s gotta be clean, it’s gotta taste good. Like something along the lines of Gatorade, it not only has to exist in some mom’s backyard soccer game, it also has to exist at the Superbowl, and everywhere in-between. 

So tell me about the state of Gamer Grub as a company today.

The idea is very similar to the Cliff Bar or PowerBar. As a startup, they began in the bicycling industry as a niche category. And then once they established themselves, they were able to build out to the general consumer. My vision is to be the Gatorade of the computer industry.

We’re obviously not there, but we haven’t started yet either. It takes a lot of successful failures, and completing those quickly. I mean, there’s no one else doing what I’m doing. There are other snacks and consumables, obviously. But not a lot of people are focused on the needs of the gaming community and what issues the community has with snack products.

The issue is how to translate that into a brand, something you can have an emotional connection to. Because, really, when you eat something, you’re literally putting it into your mouth. Not only does it have to taste good, it has to have another level of primal acceptance. We’re not out of the jungle that long, you know. You really have to think into the minutiae of what it means to eat something.

What are the issues that gamers specifically face with food?

The biggest complaint in the gaming community is that they don’t like when their equipment gets damaged, or when their hands get greasy when they’re eating something else. So when you have a pizza or a grilled cheese, or Doritos, Cheetos, Fritos—any of those other ones—you are gonna transfer grease and goo onto your computer. Finding a solution for that was our first major achievement. We had many different designs on how to solve that problem.

The other issue had to do with energy drinks. There’s a lot of energy options for the gaming community already, so doing a kind of stimulant didn’t make a whole lot of sense. But it showed that gamers were used to having products that are not only nutritious, but also provide a function. So we put together a vitamin pre-mix which was designed specifically to support fast thinking—electro-connectivity between nerve cells in a very basic form.

It’s been interesting to watch other companies. Doritos sponsored MLG for a little while. Huge marketing dollars. Frito Lay, one of the biggest snack companies on the planet, trying to pander, quite frankly, to the gaming community. They just took their bag and stuck Master Chief on the cover, and said “Ta-Da!” and wrote a big-ass check to MLG or Microsoft. And now you’re a gamer snack? You’re just sticking a sticker on the existing product. You’re still having the same problem—you’re still eating a Dorito, you’re still getting junk on your hands. You’re not gonna be doing competitive gaming when you’re eating Doritos!

Well the question of how to dispense food without affecting your mouse, keyboard, controller or whatever it may be seems like a design issue entirely as opposed to a nutritional question, right? What were the other ideas you had to resolve that that you mentioned?

The very first light-bulb concept was almost a kind of MacGyver controller. The thing looked very similar to an avionics controller, it had an operable cap, triggers, a kind of containment system for the snack pieces. But when we were putting that component together, it came up that just the cap alone and the investment required to engineer a new cap system just didn’t cost out as a startup company.

Was that more like a Thermos-type device then?

Yeah and it was also double in size. Right now Gamer Grub packages are around 3.5 ounces. This was almost the size of a Pringles can. We envisioned that a container that large would not only provide the packaging, but it would just be so cool! It was just a beautiful, beautiful thing. But also the problem was not only the investment to build that thing. We were talking with providers at 7-Eleven and other snack stores, and the price point for something that size was upwards of eight to ten dollars. They looked at us and…do you know what you can buy for ten dollars at 7-Eleven? (Laughs) When you’re just trying to design the coolest thing possible, that’s where you start out. But then you work through the constraints.

A lot of contemporary life-hacker-type reasoning tries to establish healthy standards for the amount of time people spend in front of screens and what exactly they do there in the first place, something that gamers certainly don’t have the best reputation for. I’m wondering where you see Gamer Grub fit into that picture—does it invite people to spend more time in front of a screen, or is it to repairing that stereotype gamers have in the first place?

We run into this issue quite often—the stereotype that a gamer is shut in their basement for three days at a time, they care so much about a game that they forget all the other self-care issues, diet and exercise being one of them. I exercise a lot because, I mean, this is fun and I want to be here for a while.

We designed Gamer Grub to be better for you than Fritos, Doritos, Cheetos, any of the other “junk” snack foods if you want to classify them that way. Gamer Grub has whole strawberries in it, it’s got whole nuts, almonds, peanuts…it’s real food.

At the same time, since it’s a trail mix format, we have many different pieces that make up our flavor profile. If you look at the ingredients on the back, it does look fairly long. It’s because we have so many individual pieces to engineer pizza for example – onions, tomatoes, all the components that make a good, zesty pizza sauce. You can’t get that with just one piece. So the cashews are flavored with a kind of pepperoni seasoning, and as you bite in, the oils will come out of the cashew and boom! It tastes like real pepperoni. That’s just one piece, there are like four or five pieces in it.

Also we support activities like GamerFit to change that stigma. I think if you look at products like Wii Fit, you can see that gaming is evolving into a kind of an aerobic activity where you’re jumping around the living room. I mean my friend tore his Achilles’ heel playing Wii tennis. Who does that? You’re getting sports injuries now from being a gamer. Obviously at the competitive level people gravitate to Xboxes, towers, things with higher processing power. But I think as younger generations evolve a bit more, I’m hoping the physical component of it will change, and hopefully that stigmatism will drop by the wayside.

Well but even the term “gamer” itself has a lot of negative connotations, don’t you think? I mean does everyone who plays games want to be considered a gamer?

The fact that we named it Gamer Grub was definitely a very difficult choice because of what you just said. In America, the term gamer has a lot of…let’s call it the high school experience a lot of the older Americans have. But now kids at the high school level aren’t having the conversation, “are you a gamer, are you not a gamer?” It’s more like, “what games are you playing?” Because everybody in high school is playing video games! I think the term gamer will dissolve over time as the new generations replace those that had an…interesting experience in high school playing games. So I agree with the concern that there’s a stigmatism with calling ourselves gamers. But that’s gonna change over time. And that’s also what we are! I mean, we aren’t potato chips.

Do you still get any time to play games now?

Unfortunately, not. The fun part, or not fun part of the process is that as a start-up, I’m the only employee. I run everything from R&D to accounts receivable and everything in between. I don’t have the employees to afford me a lot of free time to really do much else than run the company.

Has that always been the case—has it just been you the past four years?

You got it! But look at it from a different perspective. You can go into Toys “R” Us, Hot Topic, Best Buy, Fry’s Electronics, all these major chains, and I’m the only product in all those stores that are run by one person.

Filed Under: Industry Interview Life

About the Author:
Yannick LeJacq is a reporter for the International Business Times. His work has also appeared in Kill Screen, Salon, the Atlantic, and the Wall Street Journal.

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