We interviewed Colleen Kavanagh, CEO and Co-Founder of ZEGO. We found out the importance of batch testing for allergens (even in an allergen-free facility!), her best advice for families that eat differently, and why she focuses her marketing on personal connection.
We read that it took you two years to develop your tasty allergen-free bar! What kept you going?
I looked at it as solving a problem, more so than starting a food company. When our schools went nut-free, suddenly my friends and I needed different snacks and there weren’t a lot of good options. Kids and parents were going to gravitate to the sea of high carb options available unless we could make a snack packed with protein and healthy fats that was super-tasty.
Maybe even more important, though, I was mad–mad at the food industry for making such nutritionally devoid convenience foods, particularly for people with allergies and intolerances. I wanted to prove that you could make something healthy, delicious AND safe. I wanted my product to be so good that it would pressure other companies to do a better job. (YES! As Lisa always says, if you aren’t outraged then you just aren’t paying attention…)
Why is it important to batch test when your ingredients and facility are free of the top eight food allergens?
Relying on a “dedicated” or “allergy free” facility is a problem for two reasons. (1) It gives consumers a false sense of security because contamination most often comes from the ingredients brought into the facility, and (2) using a stagnant fact like whether or not a product is made in a dedicated facility as a proxy for safety doesn’t help identify and clean up the supply chain in the long run.
Some suppliers will claim their ingredients are sifted and processed in a dedicated facility, but it may not true. They won’t tell you who their supplier is because they don’t want you to cut them out an purchase directly from their supplier, so you can’t check. Allergy testing every bag of ingredients for a multiple allergens (which no company does) would make the products so expensive no one could afford them.
If you batch test, you’ll find contamination regardless of where it came from (field to factory). If you do find it, you can start the chain reaction of chasing it down the supply chain, bringing awareness and accountability to the supplier and source.
Weren’t you nervous to make your batch test results available online?
Yes! Since no other company is batch testing and reporting, we didn’t know what to expect. Since we’ve been in a top 14 free facility (except coconut), though, we haven’t measured any cross contact. I always am nervous waiting for the results, though, and what keeps me calm is going back to our values of transparency and safety — we’d rather be completely transparent and deal with the consequences of that than not test and have someone have a reaction to our product. That consequence is unacceptable.
What gave you the idea to add the QR codes to your packaging?
I launched ZEGO with Jonathan Shambroom, who was a fantastic partner. He had been steeped in tech startups his whole career. When we first started ZEGO, we couldn’t find a top 8 free facility, so we were at one that also processed allergens like almonds. We were already testing for cross contact and I told him I wanted my parents to be able to scan their bars to see our cross contact reports for the batch that bar was made from. His eyes lit up and he said, “that’s easy!” He had the QR code system set up in minutes.
From crowdfunding your initial Indiegogo campaign to crowdsourcing opinions on flavours, you place a lot of trust in others. Have your consumers ever steered you away from something you thought was a great idea?
Not quite – We’ve always had really clear values on quality, nutrition and safety guiding us but I’ve learned how you ask for feedback and how you evaluate it are really important. Taste is so individual and can depend on what you ate or drank before you tried the bar. Some people want to be nice, and won’t say anything negative, so you have to be careful how you ask the question. Also, some feedback is impossible to accommodate. For example, several people have asked us to produce a bar that has 20-30 grams of protein in a 38g bar but is still as clean, unprocessed and nutritious as ZEGO bars are. That’s an impossible goal -nature just can’t do that. To give you an illustration, if our bar were made of 100% beef jerky, it would have 14 grams of protein, 100% chia seeds would have about 6g. But, we are able to increase our protein beyond the 2g you most often see in other bars by using sacha inchi seed protein, which meet our quality standards because it is made without the chemicals and enzymes used for other proteins like whey, soy, rice and pea — it’s really just seed meal.
What time of day are we most likely to catch you with a ZEGO bar in hand?
I ALWAYS have ZEGO in my bag or car, but you’ll see me eating them around 10:30am or 3pm, when my breakfast or lunch wears off.
What snack do you most want to see made allergen and GMO free?
Pretzels! They all have soy, which is a highly processed, allergenic food and almost always genetically modified.
Has creating ZEGO changed the way you eat?
Yes, I am much more aware of how dairy and starches like tapioca, potato and corn hurt my stomach. I don’t eat many packaged snacks anymore. There are a few companies doing great things, though, and I look forward to seeing more of their products. We particularly like Barnana, Bare fruit crisps, and Pascha Chocolate. (We’re also always on the hunt for healthy, wholesome nut-free snacks – here’s our growing list!)
What ingredient would you most want to see banned from food products?
I’d like to see WAY less soy. It’s used in most packaged snacks and a nutritional mess: GMOs, over processing, phytoestrogens, allergies and it’s really hard to digest.
What’s your biggest piece advice for kids (and the parents of kids) who eat “differently”?
Focus on what you can eat, not what you can’t, and find a community for support. There are a lot on-line. Freedible is a new one that covers a lot of well and lesser known dietary issues. There are fantastic Instagram sites and bloggers to follow and on-line recipes to try.
Also, when my kids started needing “free from” foods in the early 2000’s, I wish I had known just not to talk about it when I didn’t need to. People have lots of opinions around food and they aren’t always informed ones. It makes it harder follow your diet if you have to keep defending it (and it can be a bit annoying to your friends if you are always talking about it).
When people – both business owners and consumers – say that organic is too expensive, what is your response?
You can definitely decrease pesticides in your family’s diet without breaking the bank.
If you can allocate $20/month, focus on switching to organic fats. Toxins accumulate in fat, so find a good price on organic fat of your choice.
Then look at the “dirty dozen” list and focus on purchasing the conventional fruits that aren’t on that list. For example, bananas and avocados are great ones to buy conventional. Consider just not buying peaches or strawberries if you can’t afford organic, or opt for organic frozen versions for a treat, which are much cheaper.
Choose locally grown conventional foods over those imported from China or South or Central America.
I never buy produce or vegetables from Costa Rica. They use dramatically more pesticides and more toxic pesticides than anywhere.
How does social media support your business?
It’s incredibly important. Though ZEGO bars are delicious compared to any bars on the market, our core repeat, volume customers are those with food restrictions. They aren’t in one region and don’t shop at one particular store. As a small company, I don’t have the advertising budget to blast ZEGO everywhere my customers might be. Social media is where we all gather in groups. It helps us find each other. I particularly focus on Instagram and Facebook.
What kind of marketing is of value to you and ZEGO?
I like to think of it as connecting, not marketing. We are looking for our customers and our customers are looking for healthier, cleaner, more transparent products like ZEGO. But we need to be introduced by a real person. That means personal recommendations are key–so I want to connect with moms who will post about ZEGO on Facebook to their friends as well as bloggers and Instagram influencers, etc.