By Michael F. Carmichael
October 15, 2009
In his early 20s Zak Zaidman had been a successful dot-com company founder with clients including Intel, Disney and IBM. By his mid-20s he sold his company, having been diagnosed with cancer. Successfully surviving cancer, Zaidman began researching the possible cause - and came to the conclusion that it might have something to do with the possible carcinogens surrounding large-scale commercial food production. Now he heads Kopali Organics, an organic snack food company with distribution in the national healthy food destination chain, Whole Foods.
At the University of California San Diego, Zaidman had been a PhD candidate in psychology. He picks up the narrative. “The tour from being a PhD candidate to running an organic food company was a little circuitous. First I left grad school to start a software company in San Francisco. That was in computer graphics and educational software. It was after doing that for a few years that I decided to devote my life and my career to doing something that was more meaningful and would have a positive impact on the planet.”
That was because of his bout with cancer which, fortunately for him, was cured quickly. “I became interested in what’s going on out there that’s giving so many people cancer, some of the healthiest people you’ve ever met,” he says. “There was no cancer in my family so I knew it was something in the environment. I started researching it and figured out that there are many carcinogens still being used in industry, especially in agriculture.”
With the zeal of an entrepreneur Zaidman began to explore possibilities. “After I sold the software company I was able to take some time and figure out what my next move was going to be. I wound up visiting Costa Rica where my current business partner Steven Brooks had been living for quite a few years. That was the first time a city boy like myself, who had grown up in Mexico City, and had lived in cities in California, had ever lived on a farm, close to the food that was being grown.”
That experience had an impact on him. “The farmers were not just my peers, but my role models and my teachers. That’s when I became especially interested in these folks who are holding the knowledge of how to grow food sustainably on our planet - food that is healthy, nourishing, delicious and not destroying our planet, but is regenerating. They’re a dying breed. They’re having a really hard time. These farmers who were holding the torch on how to grow food sustainably are finding it impossible to compete in a world where the price of food is set by the lowest common denominator. That’s how we began trying to figure out how we might be a bridge to connect people who care more about the food that they’re eating, where it comes from, how it’s grown and how it’s traded.”
Getting the food from small farms in remote locations was a problem, but not insurmountable.
“Sometimes we work with farmers directly or with cooperatives of farmers which handle the logistics of working with many small farmers,” Zaidman explains. “Sometimes we work with small producers that work with a collection of cooperatives, so we don’t personally have to go collect from hundreds of farmers throughout the world.”
‘Around the world’ is an understatement. “One of our products, for example, is a dried pineapple that comes from Uganda. It is grown by many, many farmers who have their pineapple picked up by a local producer. The producer has set up a drying facility and worked with the international organic certification agencies,” explains Zaidman. The USDA then works with the international certification agencies “so when a local agency certifies that a product is totally organic the USDA recognizes that and we put the USDA Certified Organic seal on our package,” he explains.
There’s one big difference between Zaidman and other organic food companies: he is only interested in buying products from small individual farmers. “That’s different than buying from one producer who has a huge plantation. In a plantation they employ peons who in many cases don’t even have a living wage,” he says, “Instead, we work with a group who specifically went to Uganda to help push forward the organic movement and to help bring economic development to the country. They did so by creating this pineapple drying facility and teaching farmers how to farm organic pineapple.”
The sustainable organic food movement is also a social movement. Zaidman explains that “in addition to buying their pineapple, the group we work with bring other resources, like education and mosquito nets. In Africa there’s a big problem with malaria, for example. Some of the money we pay to buy the pineapple goes to buy mosquito nets which are so cheap, but are still too expensive for some of these families to afford.”
The results for Zaidman are worth any complications. “For us, it’s still complicated buying pineapple from Uganda, but it makes a big difference. Instead of getting involved in a charity we get to be involved in commerce which just happens to have a beautiful cause behind it.”
From a consumer standpoint, Zaidman firmly believes the products that start on small family farms around the world are worth the extra work. “The pineapple they’re eating is better than any candy. I challenge people who’re tasting it to tell me a candy that tastes better than this. They can’t do it. It’s sweet, it’s chewy, it’s tangy - and when you look at the ingredients-¦ it’s organic pineapple and that’s it. This is just one example,” he points out. “There’s the banana cooperative we started with in Costa Rica, there’s the cocoa cooperative we work that has thousands of small farmers - we’re just fortunate to have them because they handle most of the logistics necessary to get the product to market.”
For his fruit products, Zaidman purchases them already dried. “That’s really important for a number of reasons,” he says. “When a fruit is picked ripe that means it’s been given time on the tree or plant to develop its natural sugars, which make it sweet, and has its natural flavors which make it delicious. A lot of the ingredients which make a fruit healthy for you don’t actually get into it until the final days of ripening. When you pick a fruit when it’s ripe you have to dry it within a few days or it’s going to spoil.”
Then there are the economic benefits. “Drying it within the local community keeps much of the profits there as well. When we get the fruit it’s in large bags which we then package in our snack-sized bags in a central location. That gives us the final level of quality control,” Zaidman explains.
The retail grocery business is primarily for very large corporations that have huge marketing and sales budgets and often literally buy shelf space in a local supermarket. The emerging specialty markets, such as Whole Foods, are a slightly different story.
“We actually got into Whole Foods before we started the company,” Zaidman says. “We didn’t really know what we were getting into, which is often the case with a business start-up because if you knew, you probably wouldn’t think about doing it. We had been running a bus powered by biodiesel throughout Mexico and Central America to talk with people about sustainability. Some of the people we talked with were executives from Whole Foods.”
Whole Foods executives were impressed with what they heard. “When we talked with them about the farmers we were working with and the products we were thinking of bringing to market, they gave us what I call a ‘soft green light.’ They said if we could figure out the production and packaging and how to bring the products to market they would give us a chance on their shelves.”
As with many initial ventures the first attempt didn’t work. But Zaidman and Whole Foods wanted the deal to work, so Zaidman got back on the bus. “At first we were focused only on what the farmers were growing and what we thought was unique and authentic and original. It took hundreds of store visits, using the biodiesel bus as kind of a home office on wheels, for us to learn that real game is won or lost on the store shelves. We learned a lot about the retail environment and the retail consumer.”
The result of all that real-world research was a decision to focus on organic snacks. “That’s the kind of product you can create a branded, emotional connection with,” Zaidman explains, showing some of his psychology background. “You may not develop an emotional attachment to your lettuce or to rice, but when it comes to a chocolate bar or candy, you care what brand it is.”
The brand that resulted is Kopali Organics. Kopali, according to Zaidman, “represents the lifeblood of trees, our commitment to the indigenous cultures of our planet, and a reminder of our sacred connection to the natural world to which we belong.”
The Supergood, Superfood snack line that Kopali makes “is a single-serving impulse buy snack that’s emotionally appealing and visually attractive - and then the customer learns about the story behind it, that it’s so sustainable and it supports all these farmers. That’s a much easier sell than telling the story first and hoping people will support the product. In the retail environment you have to grab their attention first, then they feel good about the product and the social mission behind it. That’s a slightly different mission that we learned over time.”
Zaidman is in the process of developing products that will be more affordable and accessible to schoolkids and their moms as a healthy alternative to high-fat, high-calorie snacks. “Right now,” he explains. “our snacks are in the $3 to $4 range. We sell now in university communities, but don’t specifically target the schools because school budgets in this country are so pathetically low that it costs almost as much to buy a healthy snack as it does to pay for an entire meal.”
Schools and education for the rest of us are top of mind for Zaidman. “We’re doing everything we can to help educate people and their children to eat and snack on real food. What’s going on with the obesity problem is that we’re eating foods we were never designed to eat. Evolution prepared us to look for sweet, fatty, high protein, high calorie foods because that was a survival mechanism. But our bodies never imagined that they would encounter foods that are so high in calories and so high in fats that one taste of a current snack would give you enough calories to survive on for a whole day.”
The American public has a long way to go, according to Zaidman, to understand that there is a major difference between “natural” foods and organically-grown ones. “If something just says it’s ‘natural’ it doesn’t mean it’s organic,” he says. “It may have been grown with chemicals which, even if they don’t end up in the foods, do get into the air and the water supply and the bodies of the farmers and their families. You can’t tell someone something is good unless it’s good all the way through. You can’t tell them this is the best chocolate if it was grown using child labor, for instance.”
Still, current economic conditions enter into the equation. “It’s true,” Zaidman admits, “food that is organic and fair-traded is usually more expensive, but we’re doing all we can to bring our costs down and be more affordable. At the same time, we’re trying to tell people that it’s okay for them to spend a few cents more on the snacks they eat in exchange for them being healthy and sustainable and compassionate.”
It appears progress is being made. “While we do very well in stores like Whole Foods we also are gaining a foothold in what are called ‘crossover’ stores that don’t necessarily have an image of healthy foods. There we’re positioned primarily as a great snack food. We don’t want to appeal just to the folks who are converted to the organic and sustainable lifestyle, we want to get to people who don’t know yet that it’s something they should care about, but eventually find out because of falling in love with our snacks.”
“For us,” Zaidman concludes, “it’s a bunch of small miracles, talking to the right people who think that our mission is worthy.” And, it tastes good, too.