Austin-by-way-of-Canada sisters Kristine and Jessica Tran create healthy snack inspired by dad
A common Asian compliment for treats: “It’s not too sweet.” While the West tends toward extremes — thus our penchant for fad diets and reliance on supplements — the Eastern approach toward health is about balancing the body, inside and out. Vietnamese-Canadian sisters Kristine and Jessica Tran are bringing a holistic approach to Austin’s health food scene with Nufs, an all-natural superfood company specializing in energy bites the size of a large truffle.
“The philosophy of Nufs is to be just sweet enough, just filling enough,” says Jessica.
The sisters moved to Austin from Toronto in 2020, at the peak of the pandemic, after a chance meeting with a buyer resulted in a distribution deal with Central Market. Along with Central Market, they’re currently on the shelves of several Royal Blue Grocery stores and local coffee shops. They are focused on the Texas market and use a local packer based in New Braunfels, Good n’ Free Foods. (Information: www.getnufs.com.)
The bites are vegan, gluten free, low sugar and made from all-natural ingredients packed with protein and fiber designed to keep snackers satiated and athletes energized. They come in five flavors — coconut pandan, orange ginger, peanut butter cacao, brownie and black sesame — reflecting their Southeast Asian heritage. Nufs have succeeded in the larger health food market thanks to the recent wave of Western consumers opening their taste buds (and their wallets) to more diverse, global palates.
Coconut pandan is the most popular flavor, outselling brownie by a mile, to the sisters' surprise. Growing up in majority-white Canadian towns where the closest ethnic grocery store was a three-hour drive away, Kristine and Jessica would’ve never believed that would happen.
Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, as the youngest of four children to Vietnamese refugee parents, they also never could’ve imagined that they would leave the security of 9-to-5 jobs in traditional sectors to pursue a dream built on flavors their white classmates found strange.
“We were always told to study hard, work hard — the immigrant dream,” says Jessica.
Their father worked as an engineer at nuclear power plants, following wherever the work was, mostly in small towns. Eventually, they settled in a suburb north of Toronto, where their mother started a small alterations business that she ran for 25 years before retiring in 2020.
“She was working all the time, coming home at like 2 o'clock in the morning. And (such) hard work — and it's not something that we take for granted,” says Jessica.
Their parents’ immigrant experience not only imbued them with a sense of hard work but also gave them the inspiration for Nufs. Their father came over on a boat as a refugee of the Vietnam War, and after a childhood of wartime starvation, he was determined to never be hungry again. He loved sweets, and he found it a symbol of success to never have to deprive himself of the food he craved.
“During the holidays, my dad has chocolates everywhere, and cakes hidden in cupboards and things like that, because for him it’s an indulgence,” says Jessica. “You’re treating yourself, you’re treating your guests. It’s something that he’s really proud of.”
Like many immigrant families, the Tran family's diet consisted of mostly homecooked meals with occasional forays into Western fast food, which increased when the family became more established.
“We definitely prescribed to aspirational consumption of, like, ‘Hey, we can afford to go to KFC, this is a treat for the family,’” says Kristine.
“I don't think that they ever really had any formal education about nutrition,” says Jessica.
Their father’s diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes in 2011 was a shock to the family. He had never been overweight, but as adults, the girls found themselves having to teach their parents about a healthy diet. Jessica knew the basics; Kristine was well-versed in nutrition beginning with training for her school's (and city’s) only female rugby team, which she founded when she was denied entry to the boy’s rugby team. A lifelong adventurer always ready to find a solution, the amateur baker started baking healthier treats and experimenting with different all-natural ingredients that would keep her father satiated.
At the time, Kristine was working in sales for a bank, bouncing between New York and Toronto, and Jessica was building a career in advertising. Neither of them seriously considered the bars they were making for their dad as a potential business until Kristine lost her job in 2018 and moved in with her sister in Toronto. She went on a year-long self-exploration journey hiking in Patagonia and backpacking in Southeast Asia. She realized during her Patagonia trek that the bagful of energy bars she brought were making her feel inflamed due to their shelf-stable ingredients.
“I was probably hiking 20 kilometers plus a day, and at the end of 10 days, didn't feel great,” says Kristine.
Coming back to Canada, she enlisted her sister and began experimenting again with bars, which evolved into bites when the cookie scoops they used were too small to make bars. They found that multiple bite-sized servings encouraged consumers to stop eating when they’re full rather than having to finish the whole bar.
“The bar has grown to be mindless consumption, and a part of our philosophy is intentional and mindful eating with clean ingredients,” says Kristine.
They rented a commercial kitchen, ordered ingredients from Costco and were excited to start demo’ing their product around Toronto when the pandemic lockdown halted their plans. Nufs' future looked dim until Kristine met a Central Market buyer on vacation while hiking in San Antonio. After he expressed interest, she rented a car and drove down to his home in Dallas, her trunk packed with samples and her stereo blasting Matthew McConaughey’s audiobook of memoir "Greenlights."
“It was the perfect motivational book to listen to because he's just essentially, like, ‘Take a risk. Follow your journey. Look for the greenlights,’” says Kristine.
The impromptu journey paid off, and Central Market offered them a distribution deal. They moved to Austin eight months later, and after being rejected by several overbooked local packers due to the supply chain shortage, Kristine heard back from Stuart Beaullieu at family-owned Good n’ Free Foods.
“I get a lot of inquiries and with the lack of capacity, I just felt like they really needed me to make it happen,” says Beaullieu.
Beaullieu admired their work ethic and loved the snacks, especially the coconut pandan flavor.
“They’re definitely hustling. They went from nothing to something,” says Beaullieu.
While Jess says it would be cheaper for them to ship packaged goods from Canada, local manufacturing is part of their business philosophy.
“Because Central Market gave us a chance, local is important. Being Texas is important. And we wanted to be consistent with that and have our manufacturing in Texas,” says Kristine.
“For us, it’s about being in Austin and the community here.”