A new pumpkin seed snack made by Top Fox outside Congerville is in more than 5,000 stores nationally
Seeking a healthier diet, Jeremy Zobrist discovered a financial opportunity.
Where? Inside a pumpkin.
Zobrist runs Top Fox, a 3-year-old snack-food factory just outside his hometown of Congerville. The chief product there is known as “pop-roasted” pumpkin seeds, sold in multiple flavors and 5,000 stores nationally. The inspiration came when Zobrist and his wife, Sarah, decided to eat fewer processed foods, especially for snacks.
“We wanted something that was really easy to eat, very crunchy (and) also very healthy,” Zobrist said.
The 47-year-old is a fourth-generation farmer who grew up on the family spread near the Woodford County village of Congerville, home to 474 residents about 20 miles southeast of Peoria. There, he drove a tractor at age 6 and harvested his first crops at 17.
Come adulthood, he worked five years as an accountant before going back to his ag roots. He owns Watershed Foods in Gridley, where 120 employees make powdered and freeze-dried food ingredients.
Eight years ago, online dating connected him to Sarah, then living in South Carolina but soon to relocate to Illinois. The two wed seven years ago and have two young children.
A need to eat healthier
When the couple first got together, Jeremy Zobrist did not much think about his diet, especially between meals.
“I used to eat a Snickers bar and a Mountain Dew in the afternoon,” he said with a sheepish grin.
But he started to think more about foods in deference to his wife, who has Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel ailment. Although different factors can affect Crohn’s in different ways for different patients, a typical recommendation calls for a healthy diet without processed foods. So, the couple began to eat better.
“Essentially what you do is cut out a lot of sugar, because there is a lot of sugar in processed foods,” he says.
Soon, he saw the effects of improved food choices.
“I lost probably 40 pounds (and) got more energy,” he said. “And that’s when I connected what you eat does impact how you feel. And how you feel impacts how you live life.”
He still missed his afternoon candy bar and soda pop. So, Zobrist, whose family farms historically have included pumpkins, found other options.
“That’s where a glass of ice water and something like pumpkin seeds was a good substitute for me,” he said.
But Zobrist did not want to buy the kind of pumpkin seeds typically sold in stores.
‘They’re very healthy … They have zero net carbs’
“A lot of the pumpkin seeds on the market have a hard, fibrous shell around the seed,” he said. “So, you kind of have to chomp through those, or you have to spit those shells out.”
Was there an easier, better way? Zobrist grabbed some of the family-grown pumpkins, harvested and cleaned their seeds, then removed the shells. In their kitchen, he and his wife experimented with cooking the bare seeds, pinpointing a method they call pop-roast.
“We realized that if we pop-roasted it, it would be very crunchy,” he said. “And I think there is something in all of us that we like crunch. It’s associated with snacking.”
Many Crohn’s sufferers must limit their intake of seeds, which can aggravate the condition. But Sarah Zobrist loves munching on their pumpkin seeds.
“In my situation, it has not been a problem,” she said.
Plus, unlike snack chips, pumpkin seeds have nutritional upsides.
“They’re very healthy for you,” Jeremy Zobrist said. “They have 10 grams of protein per serving. They have zero net carbs. And if you add a little seasoning, they’re really quite tasty. And I’m a big believer that if it doesn’t taste good, long term it’s not sustainable.”
For every turn, there is a season
Seasoning was key. After trying different spices and herbs, they came up with a few early flavors, such as Himalayan salt, chili lime, barbecue and caramel-apple.
They quickly realized such a product might be marketable, so they formed a team to launch the venture. But what to call it? Zobrist and others brainstormed names to describe a snack choice that’s wise and smart.
“We were like, ‘What about a fox?’ That’s a critter that has some of those characteristics,” Zobrist said. “I was like, ‘You’ve got top dog, top gun. What about Top Fox?’ And it stuck.”
Top Fox Snacks set up shop — two massive sheds, actually — just outside Congerville village limits. They started cranking out packets of seeds in 2020, just before the COVID-19 outbreak, selling the product through Amazon and the company website.
Since then, Top Fox seeds have taken off, landing on shelves in 5,000 stores nationwide, including local Hy-Vee stores. Soon, Kroger also will carry the seeds, which run about $5 per packet.
Going forward, with Top Fox finding more space in more shops, Zobrist wants to boost production. One of the challenges involves the messy process of cleaning and drying seeds. Though the Top Fox pumpkin line grows seeds without shells, there’s still the matter of all that pumpkin goop.
“We bring all the wet seed that’s very slimy — we’ve all cut open a jack-o-lantern and we know how slimy that stuff is — and we bring that seed back to this facility,” he said. “And we have special dryers to dry those seeds. You have about 24 hours to dry that seed.”
Trevon Carroll, who works in the company’s research and development department, has been setting up a new and faster drying process.
“We’re working on converting it to a continuous system,” Carroll said.
The sky’s the limit
Such improvements, as well as overall company growth, are exciting to Carroll, a Congerville native who grew up with many of his coworkers. He has been at Top Fox for five years, starting when he was in high school.
“It’s fun for me to work on something I’m passionate about, right in my hometown,” Carroll said.
Though the factory sits outside village limits, Mayor Rick Bauman sees it as an economic boon.
“It’s good for the area,” Bauman said.
The plant’s plans to hike production could mean a boost to its current workforce of 35 employees, said the mayor. Further, he thinks the seeds — including new flavors Zobrist aims to launch soon — will grow in popularity.
“They’re pretty good,” Bauman said. “What he’s putting out is registering with the public.”
Zobrist also smiles at the notion of a continued upswing of Top Fox, including its role as an economic driver for his hometown.
“It means a lot to the community, I think,” he said. “Its future. Its growth.”