After more than 20 years in the food business, John Ghingo ’94 knows what’s most important:
“Everything needs to taste good,” he says. “That’s ultimately what drives people to eat, to try foods. Taste always matters in the food business.”
Ghingo has worked for snacking brands like Oreo, Chips Ahoy!, Cadbury, Swedish Fish, and SourPatch Kids, so he knows what he’s talking about. But these days he is focused on both taste and nutrition in the same snackable package. Ghingo is the CEO of Whisps, a company that makes cheese crisps and other cheese products.
“The mission of the company is to bring real substance and real food to the world of shelf-stable, packaged snacks,” he says. “The packaged snacks category is loaded with junk foods that have very long lists of hard-to-decipher ingredients and lack meaningful nutrition. As a society, our lives have become busier and we’re snacking, grazing and eating smaller meals more frequently. And it is becoming more and more critical that we have nutritious, clean-label snacks that are convenient.”
The clean-label category of foods refers to items that are made with minimal processing or artificial ingredients, as well as easy-to-understand physical labels.
Whisps has been in business for about six years, and Ghingo took the helm in January 2022. As CEO, he works on the company’s investment strategy, brand positioning, retail partners, and customer service. Whisps is based in New York City, with manufacturing operations outside of Chicago in Elgin, Illinois. The cheese snacks are stocked nationwide in grocery stores, convenience stores, and big-box stores like Costco and Wal-Mart.
When Ghingo was a business major in the Mendoza College of Business, a career in the food industry wasn’t on his radar. He was interested in marketing because it involved understanding people and behavior. He majored in business with concentrations in marketing and management, and then started his career in advertising. One of Ghingo’s early ad clients was Kraft Foods, and that’s when he first got excited about the food industry.
“What I really liked about food was how relatable it was for everyone. Everyone connects to food, whether it is personal consumption, in terms of fueling our bodies or enjoyment, or the bigger picture, which is the connection that happens around food among groups of people: family connections, social connections, cultural traditions,” he says. “So much of what we do every day revolves around food. It’s very relatable and broadly appealing to many different people, so it’s something that I got excited about.”
With that in mind, Ghingo went back to school for an MBA at NYU Stern School of Business and then started his career in the food industry managing snack nut brands at Nabisco. That company was acquired by his old client, Kraft Foods, which then became Mondelez International, Inc. Ghingo spent 17 years in leadership and management positions at Mondelez, working on Oreo, belVita, Chips Ahoy!, Cadbury, Swedish Fish, SourPatch Kids, and Trident.
After his years of experience in global marketing and sales at Mondelez, Ghingo decided he wanted to explore the natural side of the food industry. At Colorado-based WhiteWave Foods, Ghingo was president of plant-based food and beverage and oversaw the Silk and So Delicious dairy-free brands. From there, he became president of Applegate Farms, LLC, a natural and organic meat company.
“That brought me deeper into clean-label eating and real food protein, and also brought me closer to our food system,” Ghingo says. “I spent a lot of time learning about animal agriculture, because we sold chicken, turkey, beef and pork products. I spent a lot of time on farms, understanding feed and animal welfare, and learned so much about where our food comes from.”
When he took charge at Whisps, Ghingo saw it as an opportunity to return to his roots in snacking, but with all his newfound knowledge about clean and nutritious food processing.
“A lot of snacks out there are designed for treating, not for nourishment,” he says. “And as people snack more throughout the day and are getting more of their calories from snacking, it’s absolutely critical that those snacks are nourishing. That’s why I was so excited to join Whisps.”
Another reason he was excited to join Whisps is to drive progress in the food industry. “If I can raise the bar of real foods of substance, of clean-label snacks, and push the snack industry a little bit further on that journey toward nourishment, personally, that’s more important than anything for me,” he says.
In his two decades in the industry, Ghingo has seen the issues with the industrialized food system up close. He feels the food industry has lost its local roots and connection to nature in favor of efficiency and large-scale production.
“We tried to design the industry like we were manufacturing any other product, like a car or a computer, but food is a natural product,” he says. “If we can get back to a system where we are actually raising things better, processing them less, caring for the land more, caring for the animals more and actually putting more craft into the food, then we will be consuming better food with more nourishment and fewer empty calories. That is the opportunity we have.”
Ghingo says this type of ethical approach to business was instilled in him from his first day at Mendoza. “We spent a lot of time talking about ethics and how to build a more sustainable business system,” he says. “It was about high-integrity business, not just maximizing profits and return on investment. When you are a Notre Dame student and then, ultimately, a Notre Dame graduate, how you do it matters just as much as what you do.”