It all started on Halloween.
A few years back, after one too many arguments about gorging on his Halloween haul, Brookline's Nicky Bronner decided he was tired of having his parents confiscate his sugary treats. So the then 13-year-old teamed up with his father, Michael — the mastermind behind Boston integrated ad agency Digitas — to create candies that weren't as unhealthy as mass-market chocolate schlock.
After two years of failed recipes and unsuccessful taste tests, sweet victory is theirs. In 2012, they debuted UNREAL, a brand that aims to "unjunk junk food," cutting the corn syrup, hydrogenated oil, artificial flavors, and GMOs. Instead, they use organic palm-kernel oil, dairy from free-range cows raised without antibiotics or added hormones, and blue agave and traceable cacao beans from Ghana and Ecuador. They've also ditched the Red 40 and Yellow 6, using natural plant dyes derived from the likes of beets and red cabbage.
The results are doppelgangers for familiar confections: there's UNREAL 41 and UNREAL 54, M&M-esque candy-coated chocolates with and without peanuts; UNREAL 5, a caramel-nougat chocolate bar that channels Milky Way; UNREAL 8, a caramel-peanut-nougat chocolate bar similar to Snickers; and UNREAL 77, dead ringers for those Reese's peanut-butter cups.
"We live in a very digital age. Having numbers instead of names gave our supporters a point of speculation where they could make it mean anything they imagine," says Adam Melonas, an Australian chef who left a Michelin-starred restaurant in Madrid to move to the US and develop recipes for UNREAL.
The colors aren't as Willy Wonka bright as those of traditional candy; the serving sizes are slightly smaller, and the chocolate boasts a stronger cocoa taste than mass-marketed versions. But the key differences are these: 30 percent less sugar, 60 percent more protein, and 250 percent more fiber per serving than leading competing brands. What's not so different is the price. Eschewing the boutique-chocolatier route, UNREAL remains competitive at $.89 to $1.29 for individual bars and $4.99 for the family-sized bags.
So far, it seems to be a winning formula. The candies line shelves at more than 30,000 stores nationwide, including those of major retailers like Target, CVS, and Staples. They've also garnered some A-list ambassadors, with Boston idols Tom Brady, Gisele Bündchen, and Matt Damon tweeting their praises.
While UNREAL is focusing on the chocolate sector for now, they ultimately want to expand. "The first five candies are just the beginning of the UNREAL movement," says Nicky, whose favorites are UNREAL 77 and UNREAL 8. "We'll be unjunking more of people's favorite candy and other snack goods and beverages. Our mission is to unjunk the world, so we have a long way to go."