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Interview with Zego allergy-friendly nutrition bar founders Colleen Kavanagh and Jonathan Shambroom

Zego ‘allergy-friendly’ bar founders: Industry must do more than slap allergen disclaimers on pack

By Maggie Hennessy , 10-Jan-2014
Last updated on 10-Jan-2014 at 16:44 GMT

Zego founders Jonathan Shambroom and Colleen Kavanagh.
Zego founders Jonathan Shambroom and Colleen Kavanagh. "We wanted to see if we could come up with something tasty for kids, moms running a carpool and athletes that’s free of the top eight food allergens. It took us two years," Kavanagh said.

The manufacturers of a soy-, nut-, dairy- and gluten-free protein bar are hoping to make allergy-friendly products more accessible for on-the-go consumers with national distribution on Amazon.com and a strong community of backers who helped the bar launch with Indiegogo. 

The cofounders of San Francisco-based Zego Snacks, Colleen Kavanagh and Jonathan Shambroom, met three years ago at a lecture on nutrition and discovered they shared similar views on consumer nutrition and accessibility to healthful, free-from products, despite their disparate backgrounds.

Shambroom is an avid cyclist and former tech industry exec, with a “large network of athletes and friends with startup tech firms, who are all looking for gluten- and soy-free snacks that are high in quality protein and low in sugar.”

Kavanagh, who has celiac disease, runs a nonprofit dedicated to improving access to healthful foods for lower-income children. She has three children, each of whom has had some combination of reactivity to dairy, gluten and sugar.

“The hardest time to be healthy is on the go, but it’s even harder for people with food allergies, particularly multiple allergies,” Kavanagh said. “Once you get into that world of food allergies and learn the stories of people around you, you find a lot of parents are struggling to find convenient healthy foods. They might find something soy-, dairy- or gluten-free, but to combine those, there isn’t a marketplace out there for that. Few companies want to look at that.”

Few companies want to touch the allergen-friendly market

Given the staggering figures relating to food allergies in the US, it’s becoming harder to ignore that market. Two to three kids in every classroom have some kind of food allergy, and there has been a 50% rise in food allergies from 1997 to 2011, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.

“It just seems like if we have this much of a rise in food issues that manufacturers need to be responsive and make the marketplace safer,” Kavanagh said. “They shouldn’t just slap a disclaimer on the package.”

Non-GMO, allergen-free Zego bars are available in two varieties: chocolate and sunflower-caramel. The main ingredient in both flavors is organic sunflower seed (in the form of whole seeds and butter), which provides natural protein as well as structure and consistency. The low-sugar bar is sweetened with a combination of tapioca, agave rice syrup, for a lower glycemic impact, and every bar contains 10 grams of protein, largely pea- or rice-based—“so customers allergic to legumes can opt for the rice protein bar,” Kavanagh noted.

“We wanted to see if we could come up with something tasty for kids, moms running a carpool and athletes that’s free of the top eight food allergens,” she said. “It took two years to come up with a tasty bar that’s free of all allergens, without GMOS and at the same time, has this attractive nutrition profile with lots of trace minerals and vitamins.”

Because transparency is especially important to consumers with food allergies, and because the bars are produced in a shared production facilitythe firm aims to eventually open a standalone facilityZego conducts allergen tests on each batch of bars it produces, and provides the results on its website.

Moreover, the product has a short list of ingredients that are easy to pronounce, Kavanagh added. "Transparency and clean label are desirable to a lot of people. It makes it easy for the customer to understand the product and what goes into it." 

‘Everyone who funded us is now a customer and part of our sales force’

Zego began as a project on crowdfunding website Indiegogo. The $50,000 raised funded Zego’s first major production run, and helped the company establish a great foundation of loyal customers.

“We had over 537 funders by way of preordering,” said Shambroom. “At the end of August, we launched and began fulfilling orders. Since then, we’ve built a great start for distribution that spans multiple channels.”

Zego is available in several Bay area grocers and natural food stores, including Canyon Market, Rainbow Grocery, Real Food, as well as sporting goods chain Sports Basement, select tech company cafes and nut-free schools, and on Amazon.com.

Shambroom noted that Amazon’s broad reach is a natural fit for the food allergy parent network, which has a strong online presence, adding, “we also know that ease, convenience and availability translates to greater reach, which will keep Amazon as a primary sales strategy for us going forward.”

Immediacy, ubiquity of info the ‘new playing field’ for the food industry

Zego is already being purchased by consumers in nearly 25 states, which Shambroom says is due in large part to its crowdfunding roots.

“Everyone who funded us is now a customer and part of our sales force,” he said. “They’re brand evangelists who really believe in the product. Crowdfunding ushered in new era that allowed us to be self-funded, launch on our own and reach a broad audience that is nationwide from the very start.”

Zego continues to benefit from its Indiegogo funders, by way of online focus groups.

“We’ve asked everyone from Indiegogo to participate in flavor surveys and have gotten their opinions on favorites, along with reactions to flavors we’re considering,” Shambroom said. “The immediacy and ubiquity of info is the new playing field for the food industry. Coming from the tech world, it’s nice to see more traditional industries embracing that, and we hope to set an example at Zego.”

The company plans to unveil additional product lines in the coming months, including a Zego Mini for kids, schools and on the go snacking.

Since we’re multichannel, there are a lot of ways for us to promote, including social media, our word of mouth channels and our extended network of brand evangelists who tried us early and supported us. Our goal is to reach millions of customers and make their lives better, but we also want to set the bar for the industry in making information available so consumers can make informed decisions,” Shambroom said.

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