Get ready for locally made gourmet puppy chow to knock your socks off as your new favorite all-time snack! We met Clayton Cottman this last year and have now discovered our new obsession: Uncle Charlie’s Red Velvet Chow.
Tell us a bit about yourself:
Well, I grew up in Washington, D.C., and moved to North Dakota about five years ago. My background is in the arts. Performing arts, culinary arts, etc. I’ve known for years that I wanted to create a successful business model for myself, my family and my community. Now that I’ve done that, to be honest, I don’t have time for a lot of hobbies. My dream is actively coming true, so I try to focus most of my attention on that. I do enjoy trying new foods though, as well as watching good documentaries. But mostly, I’m learning about business and experimenting with new flavors and ideas.
What you create under Uncle Charlie’s Gourmet Snacks?
Uncle Charlie’s Gourmet Snacks makes five flavors (Banana Split, Brownie Truffle, Cotton Candy, Orange Creamsicle and Red Velvet) of a gourmet spin on what is known regionally as “puppy chow.” We start with rice squares, coat them in gourmet chocolates and our proprietary blend of flavors, then toss them in powdered sugar. Each batch is handmade right here in Fargo and we take great pride in that. We are also releasing a line of Charlie’s Chocolate Crunch Bars this fall 2021; they’re going to knock your socks off!
Tell us where your name came from?
“Uncle Charlie” was actually my great-uncle, Dr. Charles Carter, Ph.D. He led a very fascinating life — one of the first black clinical psychologists in the nation. A member of the famed Buffalo Soldiers of World War II, he went on to earn his master’s degree, then doctorate; became a Howard University Professor; and was eventually appointed to head several national psychological and mental health government agencies including the Vocational Rehabilitation and Mental Health Administrations of Washington, D.C. His wife, my Aunt Thelma, was the sweetest, kindest lady. She made the best cakes in the entire neighborhood. People would make any excuse to stop by for a slice, but everyone knew that her famous cheesecake was reserved for my Uncle Charlie. I do my best to recreate the feeling that I imagine Uncle Charlie must have had every time he ate a slice of that cheesecake; the exclusivity of it, the love that went into making it.
Your personal favorite flavor you’ve created so far?
Orange Creamsicle. There’s something about the way the white chocolate, orange and vanilla come together that makes me feel like it’s summer, even in the middle of a blizzard.
What was your first experience with puppy chow?
I hadn’t lived in Fargo long when a co-worker invited me to his Super Bowl party.
I didn’t know many people in town and I figured I could meet some new friends. We were watching the game and passing around snacks—the usual chips and salsa, buffalo wings, that kind of thing. Then someone handed me a bowl of these powdery squares and I couldn’t put them down! I asked what it was called and he said “puppy chow.” I was immediately hooked.
How do you determine the next flavor you’ll release?
I study snack industry trends and try to keep an eye on what is popular. The biggest factor, though, is feedback from the local community. We are getting ready to launch our two most-requested flavors to date, Peanut Butter Cup and our Special Edition NDSU Bison-inspired Key Lime. Both will be widely available in spring 2021. But can you keep a secret? Our Key Lime flavor is currently, secretly available at the NDSU Bookstore.
What is your favorite thing about having your own business?
The best part about having my own business is using my creativity to serve my community in a tangible way.
What is the most challenging thing?
The most challenging part is being the face of the brand, and remaining confident; knowing I don’t have all the answers. I’ve been very fortunate to have an excellent mentor (and business community in general) that I can consult with when I have questions, and that has helped immensely.
What is a word that best describes you?
Driven. I am not the type of person who does things half-heartedly. I jump in with ten toes. I eat, sleep and breathe Uncle Charlie’s Gourmet Snacks and plan to continue until people all over the country are enjoying Charlie’s Chow.
What advice would you have given yourself 10 years ago?
A decade ago, I was working in food service, dreaming of the day when I could start my own business. I would tell my younger self to push through and focus on the elements of the job I enjoyed — the opportunity to turn a simple dish into something beautiful, the interplay of taste and texture — and know the rest was temporary. I’d tell myself that one day, all of the hard work would pay off with still hard but different work, work that I was doing for myself.
Where can people find your work?
Firstly, everyone should visit www.EatCharliesChow.com to purchase snacks and learn more about the company. We are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, of course. And you can purchase Charlie’s Chow at a growing number of local retailers — soon to be everywhere delicious snacks are sold!
How can our community support you, especially in this pandemic time?
COVID has taken a toll on everyone, and small business owners have been hit especially hard. Opening in the midst of a pandemic was never the plan. We had several trade shows scheduled, which was the main way we intended to introduce our product to a larger audience. Instead, we have focused on our direct-to-consumer sales and growing our retail partnerships.
Anyone who wants to support the brand can do a few things: purchase Charlie’s Chow everywhere you see it, tell a friend to tell a friend about Charlie’s Chow and contribute to our Kickstarter campaign. We are raising money to support the rapid growth of our company— manufacturing, marketing, distribution and warehousing are all expenses that add up quickly and are necessary to expand the brand. We are so proud to be a Fargo startup and appreciate the love the Fargo area has shown to us. We can’t wait to be the next treat you can’t leave town without!