Consumer packaged goods giants from Campbell Soup (CPB - Get Report) to General Mills (GIS - Get Report) are being pressed by analysts and investors to reverse declining food volumes by acquiring high-growth brands in the natural and organic space.
High on their shopping lists are food companies that satisfy key consumer tastes for snacking, high-protein, organic, all-natural, simple-ingredient, gluten-free and allergy-friendly offerings.
The list of potential buyers in addition to Campbell and General Mills includes Mondelez International (MDLZ - Get Report) , Hain Celestial Group (HAIN - Get Report) , J.M. Smucker (SJM - Get Report) , Hershey (HSY - Get Report) , Coca-Cola (KO - Get Report) , PepsiCo (PEP - Get Report) , Hormel Foods (HRL - Get Report) , ConAgra Foods (CAG - Get Report) , WhiteWave Foods (WWAV , B&G Foods (BGS - Get Report) and Kellogg (K - Get Report) .
Even Dr Pepper Snapple Group (DPS has entered the fray, buying a small 3% stake in Bai Brands, a maker of antioxidant-rich beverages, for $15 million in April, valuing the entire company at about $500 million.
Industry sources say to expect healthy deal activity for the remainder of the year in the natural and organic food segment.
As food companies browse the shopping aisles for targets, here is a list of the top private food companies they could be eyeing, in no particular order.
At the top of the list is Greek yogurt maker Chobani.
Private equity firm TPG Capital, based in Fort Worth and San Francisco, is said to be shopping its minority stake in the company, according to industry sources. The yogurt brand would likely be attractive to the likes of Kellogg and PepsiCo, among others.
Chobani received a $750 million cash infusion from TPG in April 2014 as the company struggled to bring a new food processing plant online. In exchange, the PE firm received warrants for up to a 35% stake in the New Berlin, N.Y.-based business, but if the company exceeds performance expectations, the stake could be worth less than 20%.
The possibility of TPG holding a 35% stake would have valued Chobani at over $2.1 billion at the time of the deal, it was previously reported.
2. Justin's Nut Butter
Justin Gold, the founder of Justin's Nut Butter, is a rock star at natural and organic food trade shows, with the launch of new products such as chocolate-covered peanut butter cups that are 100% organic and made with Rainforest Alliance-certified chocolate winning accolades and awards, not to mention consumers' dollars.
Up until last year, Boulder, Colo.-based Justin's sales were growing by triple digits, Gold said. More recently, however, growth has slipped into the double digits on an annual basis. A source pegged the company's revenue in 2014 as north of $40 million.
Gold previously told The Deal there are potential synergies between a young entrepreneurial brand and larger consumer packaged goods group. He referred to Coca-Cola's Honest Tea, Unilever's (UL (UN - Get Report) Ben & Jerry's and Groupe Danone's (GPDNF Stonyfield as examples of successful matches.
Backed by Los Angeles-based PE firm VMG Partners, Justin's began putting out feelers for possible acquirers earlier this year, The Deal reported. Over the past couple of years, strategics have been paying at least 3 times revenue for brands such as Justin's, which would give the company a valuation of at least around $150 million.
3. Quest Nutrition
Quest Nutrition, the El Segundo, Calif.-based maker of energy bars, sold a minority stake in the company to Los Angeles-based VMG Partners. The investment was said to award Quest a valuation of up to $1 billion based on revenue of $250 million to $300 million, according to a source familiar with the situation.
According to Quest's Web site, the company also sells powders, chips, snacks, pasta and bars that are all high in protein. The company's products are sold in retailers such as Walmart (WMT - Get Report) , GNC (GNC - Get Report) and Vitamin Shoppe (VSI - Get Report) .
While the private equity investment by VMG is fairly recent, occurring in July, it is not difficult to imagine that the company will soon be on the menu of strategic buyers, considering its size.
4. Daiya Foods
Daiya Foods, a maker of dairy-free cheeses based in Vancouver, British Columbia, had a busted auction earlier this year, fetching less than the valuation north of $100 million it was seeking. That top bid came in at about $90 million, The Deal prevously reported.
The company had hoped that, similar to other brands it the space, it too would be able to charge a price that was around three times revenue or more.
But potential bidders see imitation dairy products as a niche category with limited broader appeal, unlike yogurt and jerky.
Still, as Daiya refocuses on growing its business to prove that perception wrong, the lower-than-expected bids do not mean the company won't be back on the block in the future, willing to offer a discount to its perceived valuation and perhaps entice a buyer in the process.
Daiya's revenue is between $40 million and $50 million, it was previously reported.
5. Ripple Brands Collective
Ripple Brands Collective is the Conger, N.Y.-based parent of barkThins, a brand of chocolate snacks that comes in flavors such as dark chocolate almond and blueberry quinoa with agave that has gained a loyal consumer following in recent years.
Its products are made with fair trade chocolate and genetically nonmodified ingredients and sold in retailers such as Whole Foods (WFM and Target (TGT - Get Report) , among many others. Not bad considering that the company, founded by Scott Semel, has only had product on the shelves since August 2013.
6. Icelandic Milk and Skyr
New York-based Icelandic Milk and Skyr, a maker of Icelandic style yogurt under the brand Siggi's, is closing in on generating revenue of around $50 million on an annual basis, The Deal previously reported.
Like its competitors such as Wallaby Yogurt, the company founded by Siggi Hilmarsson would attract plenty of potential buyers once it put up the "for sale" sign. Wallaby sold for $125 million to WhiteWave for two to three times its revenue of $45 million in early August.
Icelandic-style yogurt differs from Greek yogurt in that it is strained of more of its liquid, and therefore, higher in protein.
7. Noosa Yoghurt
It is easy to discern at this point that yogurt makers have a large presence on this list as consumers craving the portable food product high in protein are hard to satiate.
Bellvue, Colo.-based Noosa Yoghurt makes an Australian-style yogurt that is considered creamier in nature than its Greek or Icelandic counterparts.
It attracted an investment from Advent International about a year ago, a deal in which the Boston-based PE firm acquired a majority stake valuing the company at north of $150 million, or more than 10 times Ebitda, The Deal previously reported.
Noosa's advantage is that it has been generating positive Ebitda, even as the company continues to rapidly grow sales.
8. Brownie Brittle
Brownie Brittle, based in West Palm Beach, Fla., was founded by Sheila Mains, a baker who supplied the brownies to some of Florida's largest theme parks.
The product was inspired by the crispy edges from brownies often left in the pans after baking. The company was last projected to have revenue of around $20 million in 2013, and is sold in major retailers including Walmart.
The company's rapid growth attracted investment from San Francisco-based PE firm Encore Consumer Capital, and is likely catching the attention of deep-pocketed strategic acquirers.
ThinkThin, backed by San Francisco-based PE firm TSG Consumer Partners, would be attractive to strategics as a maker of energy bars and is becoming ripe for a sale. The company was founded in 2000 by Lizanne Falsetto and is based in Venture, Calif.
As of 2013, the company had revenue of more than $70 million, and has continued to rapidly grow.
The space remains attractive to strategics and private equity, with a number of bets placed on the likes of energy bar companies Health Warrior and Perfect Bar & Co. by VMG.
Kind, the New York-based maker of fruit and nut bars and other snack food products, would likely be one of the most attractive targets on this list if founder Daniel Lubetzky ever decided to sell.
At one point Lubetzky, having founded the company in 2004, had sold a minority stake in the business to PE firm VMG in 2008. But by 2014, he bought that stake back for $200 million in cash and $20 million in notes, valuing the entire company at $730 million.
The company had revenue well above $100 million when negotiations by Lubetzy to buy back the stake began in mid-to-late 2013 and have only grown since then.
The following two companies land on our honorable mention due to their increasingly popular products, even though they just attracted investment from PE firms in the last year.
Thanasi Foods, based in Boulder, Colo., was founded by Justin "Duke" Havlick and cut its teeth selling sunflower seed snacks. Its latest product launch of meat jerky under the brand Duke's has bolstered the company's offerings and attracted an investment from PE firm Encore Consumer Capital.
Thanasi is a rapidly growing snack food player that is not only disrupting the food space, but also has the opportunity to penetrate the lucrative retail segment consisting of gas stations and convenience stores.
The potential of snack food sales at convenience stores, which so far has been a tougher nut to crack for natural and organic food brands, is what drove Hershey to buy jerky brand Krave Pure Foods from Alliance Consumer Growth for around nine times revenue.
Live Better Brands
Founded in 2011 by industry veteran Jim Breen, Live Better Brands has more than $15 million in revenue. Its tortilla chips and crackers are made with non-GMO ingredients and sprouted whole grains.
Breen previously told The Deal he expects his company to increase its revenue by 50% this year and next. He said that the growth rate may even be feasible in 2017. Although the company is not Ebitda-positive, as it is still scaling, Breen said he expects it will be able to turn a profit in one to two years.
The founder has also suggested that Live Better Brands could consider selling to a strategic acquirer longer term after securing capital to expand the business. He explained that, because of the dearth of targets posting more than $100 million in revenue, food conglomerates are increasingly pursuing inexpensive bolt-ons.
Live Better attracted an investment earlier this year from PE firm Alliance Consumer Growth, so the company is likely to spend some time growing before being hitting the auction block again.