Indeed the explosive success of Health Warrior’s 100-calorie chia bars - which were launched in December 2011, went national with Whole Foods in 2012 and are now in 7,000+ stores from Target to Safeway - has in no small part contributed to chia’s stunning rise from niche to mainstream in food culture.
But while the last three years have been so action-packed they've felt like “dog years”, Emmett says they are still just scratching the surface.
“One of my favorite parts of the chia story is its wonderful history. It was one of the key foods in the western hemisphere for 2,000 years. The Spanish wiped out the crops, so no one had heard of it for the past 400 years, and now it’s making this epic come back.
"But there are still loads of Americans that haven’t discovered it."
As for his own journey, he says: “I’d say the last three years have been a humbling experience. And I thought my last job was tough. Let’s just say I look significantly older than I did three years ago, and I’ve got a lot less hair. But it’s been worth it.”
Demand, Supply, and Elasticity in the Copper Trade at Early Jamestown
Emmett - who launched Health Warrior with Dan Gluck and Nick Morris four years ago - does not have a background in food, marketing or finance (his resume includes stints as an archaeologist and legal adviser to the governor of Virginia, and his qualifications are in law and history).
It’s probably also safe to assume he’s the only food CEO to have published work exploring ‘Demand, Supply, and Elasticity in the Copper Trade at Early Jamestown’.
“We started the business almost by accident," says Emmett. "We'd all read Born to Run, this amazing book about the Tarahumara tribe of Copper Canyon, Mexico [renowned for running barefoot for miles fuelled by chia] and it talks a lot about chia. So we originally thought we could build a business targeting athletes. [Emmett, Gluck and Morris are all former NCAA Division I athletes]."
But he was well aware that a love for chia (and an intimate knowledge of the 17th century copper trade) would not be not enough to succeed in the cut-throat world of consumer packaged goods, and reached out to people that knew what they were doing from the outset, he says.
“You can be the smartest person in the world but still make some big mistakes in those first two years. We got some really great advice from [Bear Naked Granola co-founder] Kelly Flatly at the very beginning, so we had our eyes wide open about things like slotting fees and discounts and shelf-life requirements.”
We’re very frugal with our investors’ money. My desk is a door from Home Depot
Their first product, packaged chia seeds, was a runaway success, aided in no small part by an article in the Wall Street Journal in January 2012 revealing how chia seeds were the secret nutritional weapon of NFL star Ray Rice [whose has recently hit the headlines again, albeit for different reasons]. A chia bar followed in December 2011.
But the big turning point came in spring 2012, when Whole Foods was so impressed by the bars that buyers told Emmett et al they wanted to stock them in every store, a wonderful - and also mildly terrifying -proposition given that they had “zero full time staff” at that time, he recalls.
However, the Whole Foods deal showed investors they meant business, and the team went through three financing rounds, securing cash from multiple investors including a group of professional athletes from the MLB and the NFL in less than two years, he says.
“The working capital needs are significant, especially when you are buying chia seeds. It's just the nature of the food business. When you fly from LAX to Boston, you use half of your fuel just to get up to cruising altitude.
“But we’re very frugal with our investors’ money. My desk is a door from Home Depot. But we’re now at the point where we’re either profitable on a monthly basis or not losing very much.”
All chia seeds are not created equal
So what keeps him awake at night?
Supply chain issues, he says: “All chia seeds are not created equal. There are a lot of very low quality chia seeds on the market right now; seeds that are not being cleaned or tested properly, are not fully traceable, or could present microbiological problems [where suppliers have not subjected them to a kill step to tackle potential pathogens such as salmonella - click HERE].
“Many producers don’t have some of the basic certifications that we require; or they don’t follow proper HACCP, GMP [protocols]. In fact in 2012, right before we launched with Whole Foods, we temporarily stopped selling chia altogether because the world ran out of what we consider to be great chia seeds, and we didn’t want to sell something that was a sub-par or even dangerous product.”
Today, he says, the firm “feels comfortable going long for an awful lot of our chia seed supplies because we feel so confident in our product”.
Most folks are overfed and undernourished
But why have Health Warrior's chia bars been such a big hit, given that consumers now have so many other healthy bars to choose from?
Lots of reasons, he says, but the biggest one is that it’s still the only bar you’ll see in national distribution with chia as the #1 ingredient.
It also packs a powerful punch for such a tiny product. Each 25g bar has 100 calories (the coconut variant has 110), around 5g sugar, 3g protein, 4g of fiber and 1,000mg of omega-3 (in the form of alpha linolenic acid or ALA), says Emmett.
“Most folks are overfed and undernourished. We have a product that is full of nutrition and satiating with just 100 calories.”
So what’s next?
Ultimately, the Health Warrior brand could stretch beyond bars and even beyond chia, he says. But the focus right now is on “going deep before we go wide”.