“You have to expand your version of success. If you have a world-view that you see a benefit in improving the community, the environment, and in having a business that provides jobs for your staff and yourself, then going down a sustainable path is the right way to do it. You just have to have a broader world-view than profit alone is king,” — Josh Tabin, Wild Zora
Wild Zora founders Josh and Zora Tabin discovered their kids’ tendency to “sugar crash” after eating typical snacks during family bike outings and hikes. The experience led the couple to create food bars that offered the more sustained energy of a small, but a balanced meal with a low glycemic index.
Wild Zora Meat and Veggie bars were born.
“What’s different about Wild Zora is that we started as a family looking for a healthy snack and not as an entrepreneur looking to build a business,” says Josh Tabin.
Perhaps it was the hiking trails that inspired their product, but the Tabins have consciously chosen the road less traveled for their products and their sustainable business model. The journey begins with their commitment to ingredients.
“There are different views of sustainable, says Tabin. “Some people would say that a sustainable business is one that can support itself for a long time. If we were not so strict ingredient quality, we could source less expensive ingredients and be more profitable. If we didn’t stick to our ethics, perhaps, our business would be less challenging to run.”
Wild Zora bars are made only from organic fruits and vegetables and locally-sourced, pastured meats.
“We don’t put anything in there that doesn’t grow in and on the ground. We don’t put any preservatives or chemicals in our bars, and only use free-range, pasture-raised animals. For beef, that means grass-fed because that is what cows eat. And we only use domestic animals.”
“Know your farmer,” a personal approach to sourcing ingredients
To source ingredients, the Tabins work directly with local farmers. The personal approach to finding suppliers requires extra effort and planning.
“We don’t buy from brokers. We meet with our farmers. There was a little bit of challenge just to get around and see them with our own eyes. Now that we’ve done that, we have family farms that we know, and we like, and trust. We use them, and we tell them what we need, we do plenty of planning, so we haven’t had trouble with supply,” Tabin explains.
Not only do the Tabins personally ensure the quality of their ingredients, but they pack the bars by hand, which allows them to use the minimal amount of highly-recyclable packaging materials.
Know your partners and your customers, too
For Josh and Zora Tabin, the mantra “know your farmer, know your food” is a deeply rooted conviction. To manage challenges of ingredient cost and increased labor, the Tabins must have an equal focus on knowing the right retail partner and the right customers.
“We’re a family business,” Tabin explains. We have to work with retailers who are truly the right partner for us. They are out there. They are less common, but they are out there.”
The Tabins work with net-30 terms with their suppliers, and whenever possible, work with customers who pay before shipment to support their cash flow. For all their partners, Josh credits “good, old-fashioned communication” as the single most important key to relationships. They speak on the phone regularly with their retail buyers.
REI is a good fit for Wild Zora, Tabin says, as REI shoppers engage in outdoor sports such as hiking, camping, and climbing — a great target audience for Wild Zora bars. Josh and Zora Tabin focus on customer loyalty, not mass appeal when it comes to consumers. Their process starts with a clear understanding of how their product meets the needs of groups.
“We focus on a few groups we know appreciate what we are doing. For example, individuals on a paleo diet are looking for food from grass-fed, humanely-raised animals and organic vegetables, but with no gluten, grain, starch, or sugar,” he says.
“Another group would be allergen-sensitive folks. There are quite a few people out there who have gluten sensitivities or are allergic to nuts or dairy, or even allergic to nightshade vegetables. There’s something out there called an autoimmune protocol —people who are on an AIP diet can’t eat nightshades. So, they have found our products and learned that they could eat them. It’s a smaller group, but they are happy they found us.”
The Tabins also targets their product for endurance athletes who need a source of long-lasting energy with a low-glycemic index.
“Of course, the last group is us; families and others who want to feed their kids healthier food,” he says, referencing the original target audience for Wild Zora products — the Tabins’ kids.
Tabin says he hopes that understanding the needs of Wild Zora consumers builds loyalty for their products. Making their business sustainable financially, he says, relies on loyal customers and a long-term plan.
Josh and Zora Tabin are just two and a half years into that plan, but their products are already available nationwide. And, they added two new flavors; pork taco with cilantro, lime, and jalapeno, and apple and pork with, as the old song goes, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
“It takes just as good as the song if not better, like summer sausage. Those are the first new flavors since we’ve been on the shelf. We’re pretty excited about that,” he says.
Lessons on building a sustainable business
When asked what advice he has for others who want to build environmentally-friendly businesses, Tabin says they should focus on their overall goal.
“I don’t think people should be unrealistic about the need to shift their emphasis away from a pure profit mode. I’m the first to admit that going down the path that we have is not the shortest path to the most profit,” he says. He adds that, for Wild Zora, success means focusing not on profit alone, but their overall value regarding a “triple bottom line” of people, profits, and environment.
“You have to expand your version of success. If you have a world-view that you see a benefit in improving the community, the environment, and in having a business that provides jobs for your staff and yourself, then going down a sustainable path is the right way to do it. You just have to have a broader world-view than profit alone is king,” he adds.
“We feel it’s the right way to do it. That’s all you can do, is affect your own little corner of the world, right? Hopefully, by having a good life and bringing health and happiness to those around us, we can inspire others,” says Tabin.
When it comes to building a sustainable business, Tabin focuses on his long-term plan, not just immediate opportunities and growth.
“Our goal is much different than many other businesses out there that focus on ‘build and sell,’” he says. Tabin plans on spending the rest of his life building Wild Zora. “Until then, I am going to make healthy food for as many people as I can,” he says.
For now, the business is growing, and the hikes that inspired the product are less frequent.
“We’re a startup business, so this is about all we have time for these days. We’re struggling to get off the ground. It’s only been a two-and-half year journey. There’s not much time, but when we have a chance, we like to be outdoors and hike,” Tabin says.
“There’s no mistake about it, starting a business is very, very challenging,” he adds.
Sustainable growth for small businesses
Josh and Zora Tabin’s commitment to Wild Zora offers challenges that “build and sell” companies with investors don’t have. Namely cash flow. Wild Zora recently added C2FO to their mix of cash flow options, clearing their first payment.
“C2FO helps us improve our cash flow. It’s a pretty simple and straightforward business benefit to us. We’re a young business, and a family business, we don’t have outside investors. For us, having that extra cash flow is very helpful,” Tabin explains.
“It only cost two dollars on the open invoice we had, and I probably spent that just in time looking at the invoice. That’s the thing that pushed me over the edge, if the interest rate cost is that low, then perhaps it is worth it,” Tabin says.
“Sustainable” can mean a lot of things. For the Tabins and Wild Zora, it means sourcing local, ethical, and responsible ingredients. It means a commitment to taking the hard road to build a product they believe in, and one that is healthy for their customers and the planet — not just their bottom line.
For C2FO, and buyers like REI, sustainable means making sure companies like Wild Zora can access affordable working capital and stay on their path to success.