In just two short months, a venture that started as a “side hustle” for a Gate City couple has turned into a full-time employment opportunity for at least one of them.
Last year, Oleg and Veronica Kopychenko attended a festival in Erwin, Tennessee and, on a whim, purchased a bag of freeze-dried candy. “We were hooked,” Veronica says. “The flavors of freeze-dried candy are like an explosion in your mouth. Much more intense and it just melts in your mouth.”
Social media, like TikTok, has also made freeze-dry candy trendy. Aside from being a trendy commodity though, according to Oleg, the flavor is superior.
“Freeze-dry candy is different. It enhances the flavor. People who love the flavors of especially chewy candy, but have sensitive teeth like me, can now eat these candies. People with braces can enjoy some of their favorite candies without the worry.
“TikTok has really given the candy new light. A lot of customers say they’ve seen it on TikTok but have never had a chance to try it or don’t want to pay some of the outrageous prices that some TikTokers sell it for. That’s one reason why we offer such low prices, so people can try some of the popular treats that they’re seeing on social media. We also think that’s it important to try it, like it, and be able to come back for more rather than buy it for more, like it, but not want to spend that amount again so not return. We appreciate our return customers more than they know,” Oleg says.
The couple decided they could create their own brand of freeze-dried candy as a way to earn extra money. They purchased a freeze-dry machine and started buying random candies to see what products work best. Not every candy is suitable for freeze-drying. Chocolate melts. Nothing with high fat content like peanut butter works. Jelly beans don’t work. It was a lot of trial and error to find the right combination.
It took Oleg a good year to find the best products for freeze-drying. “Each candy requires a different temperature. Different amount of time. Different pressure. It can be a pretty complicated process,” Veronica explains.
But once he figured out the exact procedure for each candy and ice cream, the product creation is now relatively quick. Becoming a certified vendor though was a different story. Oleg had to document every step of the production process, from washing his hands, to how he avoids cross contamination, to product packaging, to labeling and everything in between. The production area was inspected by the Department of Agriculture. Virginia’s requirement for cottage producers is much stricter than neighboring states like Tennessee, where almost anyone can operate a business out of their home.
Not so in Virginia. Every part of the couple’s home had to be inspected. And the Kopychenkos are proud to say they are one of the very few certified freeze-dry vendors in the Commonwealth. They sell their candy and ice cream products under the name, Coon and Fox Space Snax and currently offer 25 different varieties. Oleg has submitted another ten for approval.
Veronica came up with the company’s name. “We had the idea of ‘Space Snax’ because astronauts eat freeze-dried meals. It’s the same process. So, I was like what if we took our favorite little animals and put them in space suits. His is a racoon and mine is a fox and the rest is in the books.” Every product also carries a space name, like Space Bars, Saturn Rings, Flavor Collisions, Astro Strawberry, Alien Ice Cream, Caramel Jupiter Clouds, Moon Rock, or Space Clusters. Prices vary from $5 for a small bag to $7 for a larger bag or container.
When the festival season started this April, the Kopychenkos were ready. They do one to two festivals a week throughout the Southeast – one on the weekend and Veronica goes to the Farmer’s Market in Norton on Tuesday.
The initial start-up investment was quite significant. They purchased two freeze-dry machines, and spent a lot of money on initial product to sell. When Oleg registered for festivals, he had to pay the vendor fee up front, plus the expense of becoming certified. To their surprise, they have recovered that initial investment in a short amount of time and are now working on net profit.
To say they have been overwhelmed with the public’s response is an understatement. “We still can’t believe how well this has gone,” says Veronica. “I have adults waiting for me at the Farmer’s Market.”
Aside from selling at the festivals, Coon and Fox Space Snax is also sold in several retail locations, including The Wildwood on Jackson in Gate City, the Grain Bin on Wadlow Gap Road, Wired Whisk and Sugar High in Kingsport and in a chain of nutrition stores throughout the region. They have partnered with local food trucks to sell Space Snax. And now, a Florida wholesaler is buying product in bulk to sell online and in Florida.
With this quick success, the couple is almost ready for one of them to work the new side hustle full-time and quit their day job. Oleg works in compliance and remediation for Citi Bank, and Veronica is a teacher, golf coach, and theater director at Twin Springs High School in Nickelsville.
Both Oleg and Veronica attended UVA-Wise on scholarships – Oleg in tennis and Veronica in golf. To Veronica’s knowledge, she is the first female from Gate City High School to receive a golf scholarship. Oleg is from Crimea, which is now part of Russia, and he came to the United Stated on a student visa and scholarship.
The pair met in German class, and Veronica quickly admits it was not love at first sight. First semester, the couple barely spoke. “I didn’t like him at first. I thought his name was Oric like from the Heath Ledger movie, ‘A Knight’s Tale.’” The second semester though things changed and they became paired up in class for projects. “We started hanging out together and one thing led to another.”
They were married on July 23, 2017 and have a four-year-old son, named Leo. When the couple isn’t working their respective jobs, they are busy with Coon and Fox. Oleg works from home and can manage making product while also working his day job. When it comes time to get ready for festival, everyone helps including Leo, whose main job is taste tester. His favorite is Bit-O-Honey or Werther’s Original Caramels. Veronica prefers the salt water taffy, which along with Skittles and Nerds, is a best seller. The couple also has a strong support group of family and friends.
As well as the candy sells, Oleg would like to branch out into other foods, such as full meals with fruits and vegetables. He believes there is a great demand with preppers, hikers and campers for easily consumable, nutritious food. With this goal in mind, they are looking toward expansion.
When they first started Coon and Fox, Oleg and Veronica worked with Beki O’Quinn Purdie with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) of Mountain Empire Community College (MECC). They just missed the spring deadline to apply for a Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VCEDA) seed grant. They plan to apply this fall and are also seeking a small business loan.
Current plans are to build out the couple’s basement for a larger production facility that will include five freeze dryers – all of which can be used for separate designated products like one for candy, one for fruits, one for vegetables, and one for meats.
By the end of the year, the Kopychenkos hope Oleg can transition full-time to Coon and Fox. For a while, the operation will stay in the basement garage of their home. Eventually, Veronica is hopeful the company can grow and move into a downtown Gate City storefront and hire additional employees.
Oleg did not come to America with the dream of becoming an entrepreneur and owning his own business. Now that he is married with a family, that ideal is growing more and more. The same is true for Veronica. She admitted as much as she loves teaching, “I would love the opportunity to work and grow together, not just as husband and wife, but as a family. I want to be there for both Leo and my husband.”
Aside from turning a side hustle into a full-time job, Oleg has another important life event coming up – he becomes an American citizen on August 11. Two major accomplishments in one year. Congratulations to Oleg, Veronica and Leo.
We wish you great success in your new life and to Oleg as an American citizen.