BE Profiles Rhythm Superfoods: Challenges and Opportunities in Sustainable Start-ups

Oct 19, 2010   //   by Colin Manuel   //   Company Profiles, Leadership, Operations Management  //  2 Comments

One of BusinessEarth’s goals is to prove that socially and environmentally responsible business is possible and profitable. When we find a company that embodies these principles, we highlight their achievements and challenges so you can apply their lessons to your business. Scott Jensen, co-founder and CEO of Rhythm Superfoods, discusses the challenges of running a sustainable start-up as well as changing consumer behavior toward nutrition

Rhythm staff packages raw kale chipsIf you’re happy with your diet, count yourself lucky. Most of us eat poorly and know it. Our nation faces a massive health crisis and nutrition (or lack thereof) is a core element of the issue. But when we try to eat better, confusion and conflicting advice stops us in our tracks. So what does it take to change course?

The healthy ‘superfoods‘ you need are already at your local grocery store. The challenge is to make it fit your lifestyle. Where some see a problem, others see a business opportunity.

Meet Rhythm Superfoods

What if there was a food that delivered an extraordinary nutritional benefit and was convenient enough to fit into our ordinary and hectic lifestyles? Scott Jensen co-founded Rhythm Superfoods in response to that question.

“Our goal is to provide consumers with affordable, shelf-stable snacks that are extremely nutritious,” says Jensen. To fill the void of nutritious snacks that taste good and fit modern lifestyles, Jensen and his team introduced Rhythm Kale Chips and Rhythm Superfood Bars. Rhythm goes even further by keeping all of its products in their raw state, thus preserving their optimal nutrition potential.

Raw Superfood Movement

Cooking with heat reduces the nutritional potential of ingredients. Instead of baking or frying, Rhythm’s products are air crisped at very low temperatures, which maintains the superfoods’ vitamins, phytonutrients and living enzymes that maximize nutritional potency. The end result is a gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan snack that fits everyday lifestyles while delivering above average nutrition.

Kale: The Superfood of Superfoods

Fresh kale for Rhythm Superfoods raw kale chipsRhythm selected kale as the foundation for their first snack product launch because of its remarkable nutritional content. As one of the most nutrient dense vegetables available to humans, Kale provides the perfect base for a healthy snack.

There are a number of indices that measure nutrition and help consumers reduce confusion. For example, the Aggregate Nutritional Density Index (ANDI), developed by Dr. Joel Fuhrman and widely used in store by Whole Foods Markets, measures the nutritional density of food with scores ranging from 0 to 1000. Olive oil, a product often thought to be “healthy”, scores a 9 on the ANDI scale. Superfoods, in contrast, rank far higher, such as blueberries (130), spinach (739) and kale (1000). In other words, kale delivers the highest nutrient value as a percentage of the calories consumed.

“We need to be true to the science of this,” says Jensen. “Whether or not kale or the rest of the superfoods cure cancer, everyone agrees these kinds of foods are healthy and better for you than the alternatives. The biggest challenge for us is to figure out ways for people to eat more of them.”

Making Superfoods Convenient: The Operational Challenge

You probably wouldn’t expect an MBA from NYU’s Sloan School of Management to be the brains behind a raw food revolution. But a responsible start-up requires a business ethic as strong as its sustainability mission. Prior to Rhythm Superfoods, Jensen co-founded Stubbs Bar-B-Q Sauce in Austin, Texas and later its restaurant and live music venue. Moving from BBQ sauce to raw, vegan, cholesterol and gluten-free kale provided Jensen with a whole new set of challenges.

Challenge #1: Raw Resistance

When you’re breaking new ground, you have to educate the consumer. “There’s a lot of confusion about the “raw” process that keeps people from understanding the benefits. For example, people want to know if it’s going to be soft and soggy.”

Jensen tackled this problem by adding a packaging window that allows consumers to examine the contents. “I’d rather not have a window in our packaging because it makes it more difficult to biodegrade. But, at this early stage, many consumers need it to satisfy their doubts.”

Challenge #2: Organic and Local Supply Chains

Supply chain management is a science in and of itself. When you integrate your supply chain with sustainable business practices, you add to the complexity of an already challenging situation.

Supply chain disruptions make it difficult to guarantee organic sources. “Right now, all of our ingredients are organic,” says Jensen, “But we don’t carry an organic seal. A product can’t be labeled organic if three months ago the only kale you could source was conventional kale, even if it was only for a week. We’re trying to get multiple organic supply chains as soon as possible so we can guarantee organic 100% of the time with the USDA Organic symbol. In the meantime, we do our best to explain our philosophy and preference for organic sourcing on the packaging.”

Similar challenges present themselves when you try to source using only local ingredients. “We prefer local sources, but Texas summers and kale are incompatible by their very nature.” As a result, Rhythm sources Texas kale in the winter and searches farther afield as the seasons change.

Challenge #3: PackagingRhythm Superfoods' kale chips and bars

The healthiest food typically doesn’t come in a package. But modern lifestyles restrict the availability and practicality of farm fresh food. As Rhythm works to define a new market, they must package a novel snack in a way that appeals to customers while leaving the smallest impact possible on the environment.

Sun Chips’ recent introduction of compostable packaging would seem a perfect fit for Rhythm’s Kale Chips. However, business decisions are rarely so cut and dry.

“Things change every year,” says Jensen, “When we forecasted our budget, compostable bags didn’t exist. They are three times more expensive than our current source. When you don’t budget for that expense, it’s difficult to adjust.”

“We make package decisions extremely carefully. We can’t jump on a bandwagon right away. You have to think things through,” says Jensen. “We’re not going to go compostable until we’re sure the change won’t reduce shelf-life or acceptance by distributors.” Frito Lay just announced they are scrapping that bag for all but one of the Sun Chip flavors because consumers rejected the incredibly loud crinkling noise the bag makes when you grab it. “What if we had jumped on that bandwagon from the beginning? We’d be composting $25,000 worth of unusable packaging.”

Rhythm Superfoods: Looking Forward

Rhythm Superfoods is just beginning their journey toward profitability and sustainability. “From a business standpoint, you just can’t open up with local sources, national reach and compostable packaging all at once,” says Jensen, “It takes time.”

As they grow beyond Austin, BusinessEarth expects Rhythm Superfoods to become a model BusinessEarth enterprise, impacting personal health decisions, their community and the environment all while making a profit.

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