“It all started when the New York Daily News published a full sized front page photo of Kristaps dunking the ball in his rookie season for the New York Knicks and the caption read, ‘The next big zing,’” Zing co-founder and CEO David Ingalls told FoodNavigator-USA.
“One of our investors is in New York and he’s an avid Knicks fan and he texted me and said will you please find out who Kristaps’ agent is, because this guy is going to be a phenomenon and he’d be a great brand ambassador for Zing bars. So we reached out and sent some product…”
Several calls and free samples later, the team behind Zing hooked up with Kristaps’ agent (and brother) Janis, and after many months of back and forth, they struck a deal, said Ingalls, who had previously raised around $2m to support the company and says he’ll likely look to raise more cash in a couple of years’ time.
“During our two-year courtship, a couple of key themes were that KP has very little time, so it [the brand ambassador work] has to fit into his routine; and that whatever he does has to be authentic, showing that eating Zing bars is something integrated into his lifestyle.
“He’s very interested in nutrition and works with nutritionists and doctors on his own diet, which means he can dispel some of the myths that tend to take hold in the popular consciousness. He also snacks on Zing bars between meals, and he’s a mouthpiece much larger than we could ever have.”
Asked how large a stake Porzingis has taken in the business, he said: “Part of the investment is an equity grant to him that vests over a number of years that is based on certain milestones as well as on us continuing our relationship... So there are a lot of clauses that will affect his ultimate share in the company. And then separately, a group of him and his brothers has also collectively put some money into the company.”
Vitality: Great taste and sustained energy
So what’s Zing – a brand founded by four registered dietitians in 2007 - all about?
Vitality, says Ingalls, who first started sharing his bars with patients before securing shelf space at 2,500+ local gyms, smoothie shops, natural food stores and Amazon (online sales currently account for just under 15% of the business, but represent a “huge opportunity” for growth).
Zing has since picked up some conventional accounts (Wegmans, Kroger) and believes the brand exposure from the deal with Porzingis could help support the company’s ambitions on the east coast, particularly in New York City.
“Right now the bar category is divided up into breakfast and granola bars; fruit and nut bars – a category pioneered by KIND; protein bars; and nutrition bars, which are kind of an amalgam of part of all of these,” said Ingalls.
“We’ve traditionally considered ourselves as part of the nutrition bar set, but in order to differentiate ourselves, we’ve recently rebranded as a vitality bar for people to sustain their active lifestyles.
“People are busy, always on the go, they’re not eating three meals a day anymore, and they want energy and vitality. But energy has become synonymous with sugar and caffeine, whereas vitality comes from great taste and sustained energy, which is what our brand is all about.”
So what does vitality look like from a formulation perspective?
A mix of high quality protein to build muscle tone, good carbs for sustained energy without causing blood sugar spikes, healthy fats to support cell, brain and heart function, and fiber to promote digestive health, he said.
“Too much sugar is certainly bad for you,” added Ingalls, who uses agave syrup and tapioca syrup as his two primary sweeteners because they have a lower glycemic index than sucrose. “We’ve reduced our sugar to 9 grams or less per bar, but you need some carbs to keep your energy reserves up.”
While there are questions over whether agave nectar - which is high in fructose, and has a lower glycemic index than sugar (which is a 50:50 mix of glucose and fructose) – is a better alternative to sucrose, he said: “Fructose is metabolized by the liver and if you get way too much, it can raise your triglycerides, but we’re talking about small quantities here that your liver can handle. The reality is that whether you have too much fructose or glucose, or glucose and sucrose, your liver is going to suffer.”
You need some carbs to keep your energy reserves up
While some nutrition bars are positioned on a high protein (20g+), zero carb platform, often by using combinations of erythritol and high-intensity, zero calorie sweeteners such as stevia, Ingalls is not a fan of this approach: “If you’re an active person, and especially if you are a professional athlete like Kristaps Porzingis, you don’t want zero carbs, you can’t replenish your internal glycogen supplies and you don’t have the energy to do the activities you want to so. But even you and me as office workers need a certain amount of carbohydrate to sustain our energy levels.”
As for the protein levels, he said, “We picked 10-15g of protein because we want a balance of protein, carbs, fiber and healthy fat, not fad nutrition: zero carbs and high protein. If you take in more than 20g or so of protein in one sitting your body can’t metabolize it, which puts some excess strain on your kidneys, so for a 200 or 220 calorie snack 10-15g of protein is about right. We use pea and rice protein but we also have a couple of bars with whey protein for people that are looking for that specifically.”
Like any relatively early stage brand, Zing has had its ups and downs, he said: “We’ve had triple digit growth spurts and years where we’ve had 5-10% growth, but with the money we’re raising we’re looking forward to getting back to high double digit, and even triple digit growth rates again.”
So how far could the Zing brand extend?
“We could definitely extend the brand into other formats and some of our investors very interested in this,” said Ingalls. “But for the next year or two we’re focusing on bars and getting our products more widely distributed and getting our brand awareness up.”