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Food & Dining

Ngata, Wieters and others add hometown appeal to snack foods

The recipe is familiar, but with a fresh twist. Mix the salty, crunchy goodness of traditional munchies with the spicy kick reminiscent of Maryland's steamed crabs — and add the power of several professional Baltimore athletes for good measure — and you've got a new line of snacks with hometown flavor. Crab-inspired cheese curls, buttery popcorn and sunflower seeds are some of the product offerings from Home Team Snacks, headquartered in Carroll County.

Launched in 2012, the company is the brainchild of Marc Heyman and Jeff Hinton, 49-year-old Baltimore-area natives who grew up in Mount Washington and Catonsville, respectively. After meeting more than a decade ago and bonding over sports, the pair became business partners in a mall kiosk, eventually building the venture into a sports emporium called HomeGamers at the TownMall in Westminster.

Over the years, while chatting with customers in the store and attending tailgate parties and other gatherings with their wives and families, the friends started thinking that a certain niche had yet to be filled in America's multibillion-dollar snack food market.

"So many people love the taste of Maryland crab, but we saw that nobody was selling crab-seasoned snacks in convenience or grocery stores, except a crab potato chip," said Heyman, the company's president. "We wanted to come up with some original snack ideas that would taste great and also promote team spirit across the region."

Over the course of nearly 12 months, the entrepreneurs tackled research and development, reaching out to snack food manufacturers, creating recipes and conducting taste tests among family, friends and area merchants, who offered feedback. 

Last year, after trying out dozens of ideas, Home Team Snacks rolled out its inaugural product: a savory cheese curl with crab seasoning, dubbed the Maryland Crab Seasoned Cheese Curl.

They snagged the endorsement of Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle, Haloti Ngata, who was acquainted with the co-owners after taping a television commercial for HomeGamers a few years back.

An image of a smiling Ngata now beams from a purple-and-black 2.75-ounce bag emblazoned with an illustrated crab and a slogan that plays on the Ravens' catchy pregame chant: "What time is it? Snack time!"

"The idea was to develop high-quality snacks, endorsed by high-quality local athletes," said Hinton, 49, the company's vice president, noting that winning the approval of a top sports figure early on proved a major coup. They did not need the approval of the teams because their logos are not used, and the company declined to discuss compensation levels for the sports figures.

"We had to come up with a twist so retailers would take us seriously," Heyman said; with Ngata's likeness on the bag, "they let us in to propose our new snack."

Today, hundreds of area retailers, including grocery chains, convenience and liquor stores, gas stations, gift shops and other outlets in Maryland and around the Mid-Atlantic carry the products.

Giant Foods Inc., which has 170 stores, now offers Home Team Snacks in its approximately 50 Baltimore locations.

"We work with a lot of different vendors who come to us with new products," said Jamie Miller, a Giant Foods spokesman. "We're always looking to see what's appealing to customers."

"We like to try out new products to see what demand is," Miller said. So far, "our indications are that sales have been good."

Besides crab-themed snacks, the company also sells Pure Purple Power energy shots featuring Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. And they're steadily cranking out new items.

Although the operation is based in Maryland, products are manufactured at various locations throughout the country.

"We don't use one facility to make the snacks, but several nationwide," said Heyman. 

Heyman and Hinton decided their next treat should have a baseball theme.  

The result: jumbo sunflower seeds, dusted with Maryland crab seasoning. Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters stars on the orange-and-black packaging, which has the phrase, "Catch a bag today."

"Obviously, crab is very popular here and I like [it]," said Wieters, whose comments came via an Orioles media representative. "So it was great that they were able to combine the crab taste with sunflower seeds."

Other players have given the snack items the thumbs up. The company was able to score another Orioles player — third baseman Manny Machado — to promote its Maryland Crab Seasoned Popcorn.

And at the start of this football season, Heyman and Hinton said, sports and snack fans can expect a crab-seasoned pretzel dubbed Pitta Pretzel Pieces after Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta.

"It's a unique snack that's never been done before," says Heyman. "We're very excited to bring it into the Maryland market."

The products are not available at Camden Yards or M&T Bank Stadium. Heyman cited existing vendor contracts and said he hopes there will be an opportunity to negotiate deals.

Fans can find the Manny Machado crab popcorn at Ripken Stadium, home of the Aberdeen IronBirds, the short-season Single-A affiliate of the Orioles. "It will be for the entire IronBirds season and for special events there," Heyman said.

The co-founders say they're in talks with other athletes about product endorsements, although they wouldn't share details. They're also focused on developing the brand and its name recognition through social media and promotional events, and they say they plan to give back to the community through local charities.

"We're not a major conglomerate, just two hardworking guys from this area," said Heyman. "We've put our hearts into this, trying to come up with snacks that show our local pride. We think they taste phenomenal. We hope the fans think so too."

Home Team Snacks

Home Team Snacks can be found in Baltimore, neighboring counties, on the Eastern Shore and other parts of Maryland. Grocery and convenience stores include Giant, Wegmans, Mars, Weis markets, 7-Eleven, Royal Farms, High's, Shop Rite, Food Lion, Graul's and Eddie's. Company officials note that not every store in a chain may carry the line or all of its products. Prices, which are set by retailers, range from $1.49 to $1.89 for the snacks and $2.99 to $3.49 for the energy shots.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun