Athletic, bright-eyed, and bursting with energy, Pete Maldonado, the CEO and co-founder of Chomps, enjoys an active lifestyle befitting someone in his position. Exercise and nutrition are a priority for his wife, Stephanie, too. She wakes up and goes straight to the gym, while Pete gets their two young children up, dressed, and fed. When Stephanie returns home, it’s Pete’s turn to workout. Then Stephanie takes the kids to school and Pete heads to work.
“I’m at my standup desk until 6 or 6:30 when Steph will text me and say, ‘Rocki’s about to fall asleep, you’d better get home,’ and that’s when I leave,” Pete explains. He tries not to bring work home, “which is easier now that we have a great team to delegate some of the work to.”
Pete was always interested in starting a food company. “I liked the idea of making products that people would love to eat anyway, but they happen to be healthy,” he says from the Chomps retail store and headquarters in Bayfront Place. From this spot near the Naples airport, the sounds of planes taking off and landing are audible. The location is an asset, according to his 4-year-old son Maverick, who loves this noisy neighbor. “We get him a rainbow bagel from the bagel place, and we go sit and watch the planes,” Pete says with a laugh. “His grandfather lives nearby too, so he’ll come down and watch with us.”
The proximity of grandparents and cousins is one of the reasons Pete and Stephanie, along with Maverick and his 1-year-old sister, Rocklyn, are happy to call Naples home. Stephanie is a native who graduated from Naples’ St. John Neumann High School. Pete came to Florida for college on the east coast and fell in love with Naples. He and Stephanie met the old-fashioned way, at Blu Sushi in downtown Naples. He asked for her phone number, and before long they were dating and then married.
Pete and Stephanie lived in Chicago while she attended DePaul University and were back and forth between there and Naples for a few years. It was in Chicago—at a mutual buddy’s poker game—that Pete met Rashid Ali. Ali is a finance and operations whiz, while Pete excels at idea generation and marketing. They teamed up and founded Chomps, which makes better-for-you meat snacks (think healthy Slim Jims), in 2012. “Partnering with Rashid was the best business decision I made,” notes Pete.
Both families—the Maldonados and Ali and his wife—have since had children, which has influenced the direction of the business. “We realized how unhealthy the products are that are marketed toward kids,” Pete says. “They’re loaded with sugar and preservatives.” They saw an opportunity to be disruptors. “It went from being a cool business idea to thinking we could actually make a difference in the products that are available and the way people eat.”
Family priorities influenced the Maldonados’ decision to return to Naples. Ali, COO of Chomps, holds down an office in Chicago, while Pete runs a smaller office in Naples. The business is soaring. Annual revenue is about $50 million, Pete says. The privately held company recently hired employees 22 and 23 (with four more roles filled shortly thereafter) and is manufacturing about 4 to 5 million snack sticks a month. They are available nationally in Walmart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Albertson’s, Kroger, and Sprouts, and the list is growing all the time.
The numbers weren’t always this large. The two partners started with a $3,250 investment each. They were profitable within the first month, Pete says, and kept reinvesting the profits. He is adamant about not taking outside capital. “We want to build a sustainable business model that’s profitable and to be able to make all the decisions,” he says. The company has a few small investors, amounting to about 5 percent of the valuation.
Another secret to their success is quality control. Pete points out that the company hand inspects every stick. If they sent the product straight from the manufacturer to the retailer without checking it, there might be a problem, such as a slow leak in the packaging. The customer would see it on the shelf in bad shape and never want to buy it again. “If we stopped doing those checks, we could add seven figures to the bottom line overnight,” he says. “But we are here for the long-term and want to give the customers the best experience possible.”
Chomps is also committed to sourcing the best-quality meat they can find. The company uses beef and venison that is grass-fed and grass-finished only (meaning they have eaten grass, not grains, all their lives), as well as turkey that is free-range and free of antibiotics. And they’ll go to great lengths to get it—literally. In 2019, Pete and Ali traveled the 10,000 miles to New Zealand, Australia, and Tasmania to meet the farmers whose meat they buy. One of their agricultural areas is covered in volcanic ash, which creates a mineral-rich soil that produces lush grass year-round. This means the cattle and venison that graze there get excellent nutrition.
“We don’t want people to be eating meat that was raised in feedlots, raised on grains like corn,” says Pete. “These farmers raise animals the way they should be—eating grass. It’s safer for the animals and for the environment.” And it’s not just the grain feeding that is the problem. “Those animals are unhealthy, so the farmers use a lot of antibiotics. And they use hormones to get them bigger faster. That all goes into the meat people eat, which can create antibiotic resistance and a long list of problems.”
Not so at Chomps. Traveling the globe to find well-raised meat makes for a product that the two founders, and their customers, can be happy about.
No Place Like Home
The Maldonados’ home in Naples is on a quiet cul-de-sac with a yard for kids to run around. Their garage protects two sports cars, one each for mom and dad, as well as a few kid-size toy cars that Maverick drives like a pro—he can even parallel park. They have a fridge stocked with festive beverages, ready for friends and relatives who come by, plus a welcoming outdoor table and living area that are perfect for chilling by the pool.
On the weekends, the family goes to Gordon Pass in their 24-foot bay boat for an afternoon of fishing. “If we could be outside all day long, we would,” says Stephanie. “We take the kids to the beach, unpack everything, let them build sandcastles and play. Digging big,
giant holes keeps them busy, and they love it.”
Being five minutes from family, with easy access to the Gulf of Mexico, makes Naples an ideal place for work and play. Pete and Stephanie were way ahead of the trend that you can work from anywhere, so live somewhere amazing. “Pete looks at me often and says, ‘I’m happy we moved back here full-time,’” Stephanie says. “He loves Naples. So do I. This is home for me. It feels great to be able to raise our kids here and live that Florida lifestyle.”