Less than three years after launching Sun & Swell Foods, Kate and Bryan Flynn’s original idea to produce healthy, sustainably sourced grab ’n’ go snacks — full of energy-rich dates, cashews, and other farm-grown ingredients — was running full-steam in early 2020. This was the couple’s entrepreneurial escape from living “crazy lives” in San Francisco, and the Santa Barbara–based company was managing numerous wholesale accounts at coffee shops, fitness studios, and grocery stores while also stocking break room shelves at UCSB and corporations such as LinkedIn and Procore in Carpinteria, as well as some Bay Area clients.
“Then COVID happened, and 75 percent of our wholesale business went away,” explained Kate Flynn, whose corporate accounts tanked too. “Nobody is working in the office anymore.”
But by April, Sun & Swell was already moving to a new model. “We’ve basically transitioned to an online, sustainably packaged grocery,” said Flynn, a UCSB grad who now offers more than 60 staples through SunandSwellFoods.com, from dried fruits, nuts, seeds, and grains to nut butters, cashew flour, date syrup, lentils, and more. “We want people to stock their pantry with super healthy, organic, planet-friendly foods.”
The direct-to-consumer format also allowed the Flynns to strengthen a muscle they’d had trouble flexing in the competitive retail world: compostable packaging. As Sun & Swell sales quickly increased after launching in 2017, they realized that they were contributing to the proliferation of single-use plastic bags and identified compostable packaging as the next responsible step toward sustainability.
“We have the potential to use our business to make a really positive change, not just for the health of people but also for the health of the planet,” said Flynn, who introduced their plant-based packaging to retail in 2019. “There were a lot of companies working on it and nobody doing it.”
Challenges quickly mounted with the compostable bags. “It just doesn’t look as beautiful as plastic, and that’s a problem,” said Flynn. “For consumers, if one package looks beautiful and the other looks wrinkly, you’re not gonna pick that product. We learned that lesson the hard way.” So Sun & Swell bifurcated their sales: corporate accounts, many of which requested compostable packaging, got the eco-friendly bags, but the retail snacks went back to the shiny plastic.
With the shift to direct online sales, however, Sun & Swell’s compostable program became dominant overnight, as all of the staples come in bags made from wood pulp, except for those that come in glass jars. The company will also take the bags back and process them for customers who don’t have access to industrial composting. (Sun & Swell partners with the White Buffalo Land Trust in Summerland for that.)
Their next goal is to open some small “plastic-free, zero-waste” retail stores for Sun & Swell products. The pilot shop will be in front of their manufacturing warehouse in Ventura, but they hope to open one in Santa Barbara as soon as this summer.
The Flynns see the grocery model as very much in line with their original goal of “making it easier for people to live healthy while living really busy, on-the-go lifestyles.” Sun & Swell’s virtual shelves are constantly expanding, and many of the products serve as alternative ingredients to traditional dairy, wheat, and sugar, today the cause of so many allergies. They still source directly from organic farmers, mostly in California, as much as possible.
“If you buy a bag of almonds from the grocery store, you might not know where they came from or when they left the farm,” said Flynn. “With us, it goes from the farm to the warehouse to you. We’re trying to connect people to their food sources a little bit more.”
Sun & Swell Recipes
Not sure what to do with cashew flour, date syrup, or nutritional yeast? Sun & Swell’s website features dozens of recipes that make using their pantry staples easy, especially as alternatives to traditional dairy, wheat, and sugar ingredients.
One-Ingredient Lentil Tortilla Wraps: Simply soak lentils in water overnight, toss them in the blender, and fry up these savory tortillas like pancakes. Then wrap them while still warm around whatever stew, beans, or curry you’d like.
No-Bake Almond Butter Bars: Making cookies without the baking part? What can go wrong? Not much when it comes to these decadent yet simple treats, which rely on almond butter, cashew flour, and date syrup for their sticky sweetness.
Cheese-y Broccoli and Rice: It’s almost magical how close the combination of nutritional yeast and cashew flour comes to tasting like real melted cheese. This takes that nondairy duo and applies it to a mix of broccoli and rice, making for a full meal.
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