Is the world ready for Wild Zora?

by Monica Watrous
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Wild Zora taco pork meat bars
At Natural Products Expo West, Wild Zora unveiled two new varieties made with pork raised without antibiotics or added hormones.

ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Are mainstream consumers ready for a meat and veggie bar? The founders of Wild Zora Foods are about to find out. The Fort Collins, Colo.-based company’s products, which combine beef, turkey or lamb with organic fruits and vegetables, are being tested in Sam’s Club stores.

Josh Tabin, Wild Zora
Josh Tabin, co-founder of Zora

“I have a lot of question marks in my mind,” said Josh Tabin, who launched the brand with his wife, Zora, in 2014. “A lot of people may turn up their nose when they see it. ‘A meat and veggie bar? That’s weird.’

“We have good repeat business, and we have good building revenue. We can see how the numbers are growing. But our challenge as a business is it’s not a neat and tidy existing category, and so trial is extremely important.”

Currently available in 700 retail locations nationwide, including select Safeway, Kroger and Whole Foods Market stores, Wild Zora products feature globally inspired flavors and include such ingredients as spinach, kale, tomato, turmeric, grass-fed beef and free-range turkey.

Wild Zora, apple pork meat and veggie bar

At Natural Products Expo West, the brand unveiled two new varieties made with pork raised without antibiotics or added hormones. Joining the likes of Mediterranean lamb with spinach, rosemary and turmeric; curry turkey with dates, cardamom and spinach; and BBQ beef with kale, tomato and red bell pepper are apple pork with rosemary, parsley, sage and thyme, and taco pork with cilantro, lime and jalapeño.

Inspiration for the product struck following a family hike in the Rocky Mountains. Dissatisfied with conventional snack bars, Mr. Tabin began researching alternative options with a lower glycemic index, such as beef jerky. But he was unhappy with the beef jerky offerings on the market, many of which contained ingredients he wanted to avoid, such as soy, nitrates and nitrites.

“And besides, when we sit down for lunch or dinner, we don’t just eat a piece of meat,” he said. “That’s not the whole meal as far as we’re concerned. We were out trying to figure this out, and that’s what caused us to try to mix together what we really eat at home as a family. We eat fruits and vegetables and healthy, responsibly raised meats. We avoid grains, starch and sugar, so we didn’t put any of that in.”

Wild Zora BBQ Beef bars

Forging new ground in the $3 billion meat snack category hasn’t come without challenges, Mr. Tabin said. In an interview with Food Business News, he shared insights, tough lessons and future plans for the company.

Food Business News: How did you decide to turn the idea for a meat and veggie bar into a business?

Josh Tabin: Zora was mixing the food and dehydrating it at home in a jerky machine. I started to get more serious helping her with this idea. We connected with the Colorado State University food science department and figured out how to make it safe.

Then Zora started giving them to the kids, and they were taking it to school in their lunches, and we had parents of our kids’ friends coming back and asking us, “We heard what Zora’s giving the kids. Can we have some of Zora’s bars?” We thought maybe there’s a product here that had wider appeal.

And then we had to figure out how to produce it in quantity. Most small manufacturers like us would go down the co-packing or contract manufacturing route, and we tried to do that, but that was kind of a disaster. It turns out that in order for you to sell a meat product across state lines you have to have the U.S.D.A. involved. We couldn’t just pick a co-packer. It had to be a U.S.D.A. facility.

Wild Zora Chili Beef bars

We called all of them in Colorado and tried to get them to help us, and they were not excited about such an unusual product. If there’s a recall, of course, it’s on their head.

And there were some funny conversations. You’ve got these guys who have been making meat sticks and sausages for three family generations, and they’re saying, “You want to put dirty things from the ground into the meat? No, we’re not going to do that.” I’m like, “Dirty things? You mean, vegetables?” It was a complete strikeout. Nobody would touch it.

It was almost game over at one point before we found the solution eventually, and it was probably just dumb luck. We found a company going out of business, a burrito manufacturing company nine miles from our house. We were able to acquire the company, and we ate a lot of burritos, and then we turned it into our meat and veggie bar company.

Do the vegetables lose nutrition in the dehydration process?

Mr. Tabin: We’ve done some research on that. When we develop our nutritionals, we try to use the nutritional values for the dehydrated product rather than the fresh product so it’s really accurate.

Wild Zora Curry Turkey bars

It depends on the vegetable and the nutrition component that you’re talking about, but generally speaking 5% to 8% is lost. The fat soluble nutrients pretty much stay 100% of their original values.

What inspires your global flavor profiles?

Mr. Tabin: We lived overseas for a number of years. I guess you would say Zora and I are foodies, and we have had a lot of broad and diverse cultural and food experiences, and that is probably what plays into it.

We test a lot. I wish we had a faster or easier way to do it. It’s just a very long and slow process of making hundreds and hundreds of recipes and trying them with family and friends and kids and their families and our staff. We also go to farmers markets and do tests of new recipes.

Wild Zora Mediterranean Lamb bars

What other challenges have you had to overcome in this business?

Mr. Tabin: Zora and I want to grow the business the right way, step by step. There are certainly plenty of retailers out there who are happy to take on new brands as long as you pay them for slotting fees and mandatory ad spend, and coupons and demos, promos… So far, Zora and I have been good about saying no to most of that.

What we’re looking for are those rarer retailers out there who want to work with younger brands without all of the excessive costs that sometimes go along with that. That’s the hard part. We don’t have a venture capital firm behind us. We don’t have the option of going after those accounts that require us to pay to be on their shelves. That is a bit of a challenge.

I know, sadly, that our products don’t have immediate appeal by sitting on the shelf in every market in every place. There are some stores, like a natural store, where they go on the shelf, and they show up and people try them and we can see the sales build over time. In our conventional stores that we’ve gone into, on the other hand, there has been a much slower uptake than we had hoped. We have to demo them, and then we can see demo after demo that we do, it takes three, four, five demos in a row before we start to see those numbers move up where we want them to be.

Wild Zora Parmesan Beef bars

It’s not like a stick of gum, where when people see a stick of gum, they know exactly what it is. They see a meat and veggie bar, and they don’t know. We are pleased there are companies like Tanka and Epic that have led the way for us. They’re not exactly like ours but close enough that it made it easier for us.

What’s next for Wild Zora?

Mr. Tabin: We do have a new idea coming. It’s going to be high protein and no grain, starch or sugar. We’re looking at a non-animal protein source, so our friends who are vegetarian can also enjoy it.

Zora cooks with her taste buds, and I help her with the spreadsheet. I have a business background, and so I’m always close behind her as she’s developing recipes to make sure we can get the raw materials in the right quantity at the right price and that we can still get it out of season. Coming up with a successful product is a lot more than just a recipe and a logo. 
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