By: Lauren Arendt
Atsa Foods, one of the SLO HotHouse Incubator companies, not only offers nutritious, flavorful snack products, but utilizes a unique business model aimed at spurring alternative industry development in economically depressed regions of the United States. Key ingredients unique to the United States are sourced from Native American communities and American open spaces.
Rafael Pintor, Atsa Foods president, and Sam Baber, Atsa Foods marketer and designer, came up with the idea for Atsa foods after a long day of surfing. They realized that a lot of snacks available simply did not reach a satisfying balance between healthy, flavorful and sustaining.
“We needed something that filled us up, but also something that we could eat everyday,” Baber said. “A lot of alternatives are good for you but can get hard to eat day in and day out.”
The focus on nutrition that tastes good led the team to look into the “superfoods” trend where consumers oftentimes look for novel sources of protein and nutrition, such as the acai berry and yerba mate plant of South America, and integrate them as staple foods in their diet. What they found is that there are a number of superfoods native to the United States with unique flavors and nutritional benefits.
“We are trying to look inward and find superfoods found [in the United States] in order to help people that have known about these foods for millennia and used them to survive and thrive in this nation,” explained Peter Haverkamp, Atsa Foods product developer.
The United States-native superfood of choice? The New Mexican pinon nut, a European pine nut-like ingredient that contains all 20 amino acids necessary for human growth, healthy proteins and fats, and a savory, buttery flavor. Only a small chocolate company has incorporated the ingredient in the past, making it highly underutilized.
These nuts are harvested once a year in the wild in Native American reservations or American open spaces. This means that no environmental modification is required, making them a sustainable choice. Atsa Foods has secured a supply of New Mexican pinon nuts for several years in the future, thanks to the relationships they have built with suppliers in proximity to Native American reservations.
Harvesting the products on and around Native American reservations is no mistake. The social mission of Atsa Foods is to develop economic opportunities based on the harvesting of sustainable ingredients.
“We want to create an economic engine in areas of the United States that historically have not had that,” said Pintor. “Our social mission is to create intimate partnerships with the people on these reservation communities.”
Once the superfoods are harvested, Atsa Foods combines them with a number of other all-natural, nutritious ingredients to create their snack line. Once they are purchased by consumers, a percentage of the profits will flow back into the Native American communities in order to promote economic development.
The feedback from customers and potential investors has been wildly positive. Their first opportunity to present what they had created to the community was at Demo Day. The team tirelessly worked to produce enough samples of the product that people would love, as well as a presentation that would translate their social mission and inspire support.
“Everyone told us they loved it,” said Haverkamp. “People immediately called us asking for investment meetings and were really excited about what we’re doing.”
Since then, they have had many meetings about investment, come in contact with the president of Yerba Mate and even sponsored a charity golf tournament.
“The CIE has been tremendous to our success,” said Pintor. “It helped us take an idea to a tangible product that we can take to the market.
Atsa Foods started their journey with the CIE in the Hatchery where they were able to collaborate with other entrepreneurs and solidify their ideas. They continued to develop in the accelerator, and even participated in the Innovation Quest (iQ) where they won fourth place and a $1,600 cash prize. The next step would be applying for the CIE’s incubator program.
“Once we got to the Incubator, we grew so fast,” Pintor said.
Neal Gorris, the operations and logistics lead for Atsa Foods, owes much of the growth stimulated by the incubator program to the connections they have made with other entrepreneurs in the incubator program, mentors, and other advisors in legal issues, accounting, marketing and general consulting.
“There are distinguished professionals from Los Angeles and the Bay Area coming in to sit down with us to talk about different issues and questions we might have,” said Pintor.
Despite its previous successes, Atsa Foods has a long way to go before their aspirations have been met. For one, they want to utilize more United States-native superfoods. An example is juniper ash, which contains as much calcium as a glass of milk in just a single gram. The Apache Navajo tribe used the burned trees as a supplement to milk and ended up with stronger bones than the average European woman.
Furthermore, Atsa Foods hopes to spread beyond the South West so that they can help communities in different regions and countries. Becoming a B Corporation will help them keep their goal of helping historically economically deprived communities as the center of what they do.
“Our plan for the future is to become a B Corp,” said Gorris. “This is so that our main priority can be toward the people that we’re trying to help rather than toward our shareholders’ profits.”
The story of Atsa Foods is what the Learn by Doing mantra is all about. Atsa Foods was founded by a team of Cal Poly students from various majors and colleges that utilized the skills they acquired in class to create something bigger than each of them individually. They took advantage of resources on campus, such as the CIE, that not only allowed, but supported and encouraged the team to turn their ideas into realities during their time as students.
Learn more about the various ways of getting involved with the CIE here, and check out how to apply for the incubator program here. Follow the CIE on social media on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to stay in-touch with the opportunities, programs and events offered.