Zeek kids’ protein bar founder: 'The first thing moms look for on the label is sugar'
“I’ve played baseball my whole life, and I was coaching this little league team over the summer and one of the most frequent questions I was getting from the parents was, ‘What do you recommend my kids eat right before they play, or in between games?’
"The more I looked into it, I thought there’s actually not much out there that’s right for the 6-12 athletic kid that’s into sports. There’s this massive nutrition industry, but it’s all geared towards adults. Or you have foods for babies and toddlers.”
‘We wanted to keep sugar low, but still use ingredients Moms understand’
Determined to find the sweet spot between the two, Pearson and his wife Kassidy hit the kitchen to create a bar with less sugar (6-8g vs c.10-20g) and more protein (10g vs c.2-7g) than the average snack bar, but not as much as adult protein bars, with a softer, more kid-friendly texture, fun flavors (cookies and cream, chocolate chip brownie), and an ingredients deck parents can feel good about (no high intensity sweeteners, no sugar alcohols).
“We wanted to keep sugar low, but still use ingredients Moms understand (honey and cane sugar) so we weren’t willing to go down to 1-2g. Parents typically check for sugar first, and they think 6-8g is not too bad. We also wanted to avoid any ingredients that would raise red flags.”
As for flavors and texture, he said, “Kids like less nutty, more sweet profiles, and softer textures, they don’t like the chalky, dry, very chewy texture of some adult protein bars.
“Every weekend we were out there testing the products out at swim meets, gymnastics events, and then going back to the kitchen and making small tweaks. The plan was to refine and tweak and keep things lean until we found a formula that really works. We believe we have the best-tasting kids bar there is.”
Number one, is will my kids eat it?
The same approach (seeking feedback, making adjustments) applied to the packaging and branding, said Pearson.
While the higher protein message and sports/fitness orientation are key differentiators for the Zeek brand, what quickly became clear after talking to parents, was that they were less preoccupied with counting grams of protein or how the bars might impact their kids’ performance, than finding a satisfying snack that their children will actually eat that isn’t loaded with sugar or unrecognizable ingredients, he said.
“The number one question, is will my kids eat it? After that, they turn the pack over and the first thing Moms look for on the label is sugar."
As a result of these learnings, the next iteration of the packaging/branding – coming out in October - will reflect this slightly more mainstream positioning, he said: “What we’ve been working really hard on is answering the question, how do we really craft the message to engage with Moms?”
The go-to-market strategy
With the new packaging, Zeek is now looking to move beyond ecommerce, said Pearson, who has self-funded the business to date but may start seeking funding from friends and family and angel investors as it approaches bricks and mortar retailers.
“Amazon is our best channel right now, but we’ve had a few retailers reach out to us and we’re starting meetings in October. We wanted to be ready as we heard a lot of horror stories - that if you go straight into grocery and you don't have everything figured out, you can really run into problems.
"You hear people say, I made it into Whole Foods and it almost killed my business, so we've taken things slowly."
The competitive set
As for the competitive set, he added: “When we started looking at the market in 2016, Clif had a product [its Zbars have 2g protein and its Zbar protein bars have 5g protein] without that much protein in, but I remember when I walked the floor of the Natural Products Expo West show in March 2017, some of the bigger names like RXBAR launched kids protein products with slightly more protein in (7g), and then the next year thinkKids launched a protein bar for kids [also with 7g protein] and Orgain brought out a kids’ bar, although that only had 2g protein.”
His initial reaction to the arrival of such deep-pocketed competitors in the emerging kids’ protein bar set was mild panic: “It was a case of, Oh no, all the big brands are now getting into this space and my niche has got all crowded out already.
“But it actually ended up helping us as Moms are googling kids’ protein bars and these brands are helping build that market and message. So we just need to make sure our bar is the best, because we’re not just shrinking down an adult bar for kids.”
But why not just make a slightly smaller version of an adult protein bar with more kid-focused branding and marketing?
“Because kids just have a different palate, different taste preferences, plus you don’t need 20g of protein in a bar for kids," argued Pearson.
The manufacturing set up
After initially working out of a commercial kitchen, Zeek now works with a co-packer in Oregon that has helped him develop a more shelf-stable formula that works on a commercial scale:
“We explained that we’re trying to start slow and figure out how to build this brand over time and you need to work with us on these lower minimums, and they have worked with us on this because they don’t see anyone else doing what we’re doing.”
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