The Australian supplier of chia seeds and manufacturer of the increasingly popular on-the-go Chia Pod product line was launched in 2003 by farmer John Foss, who said he had a vision “to improve the health of the global community” by making the omega-3-, fiber- and protein-packed chia seeds “available to everyone, every day.”
To successfully establish chia seeds as a viable, long-term food category and not just a passing fad, Foss knew he needed to ensure a consistent, high-quality supply of the superfood that could meet demand without falling victim to the “boom and bust cycle” that often characterizes food trends and can threaten farmers’ livelihood.
He also knew that he would need to educate manufacturers and shoppers about the health benefits and uses for the mini, but mighty seeds, and create final products that consumers not only wanted, but which also fulfilled unmet needs.
Creating demand and balancing supply
The Chia Co. began primarily as a supplier for manufacturers in Asia and the U.S. before it expanded into the retail space with it is own branded, finished products packaged in iconic orange in the U.S. in 2011.
It took this route so that it could first establish relationships with farmers and demonstrate to them the potential demand for the crop, while at the same time working with manufacturers to understand the supply requirement.
“The key for us is matching supply and demand and we have done that successfully because we work directly with the farmers in Australia when they grow our seeds … and there hasn’t been any intermediary between us and the farmers distorting communication,” Foss said.
“We also work with our manufacturers from the development stage,” which allows The Chia Co. to know when and how much seed they will need for a new launch and continued production, Foss added. “We can then plan ahead in our crop production process” to ensure enough crop is planted sustainably so that the quality of the seeds is not compromised by scrambling to fulfill a larger order than expected.
This strategy is different from other traders in the chia market that will lock in sufficient supply for one year, but not the next, which might leave manufacturers in a pinch for supply and willing to accept a lower quality seed, Foss said.
“Their goal is to buy cheap from the farmer and sell dear. Our goals are different. Our goals are about ensuring that the farmers are profitable, that we take care of the environment and that we are building awareness of chia for the long-term health and profitability of our company,” said Foss.
By taking the long-view, Foss said The Chia Co. can ensure its seed “quality has uniform, nutritional content, which comes from how and where we farm it.”
Foss acknowledged that he sees a lot of cheaper seed available than what he offers, but he said, “usually it contains half the nutritional content of The Chia Co.,” and includes brown seeds of lower quality.
Chia is “like any category, some shoppers will choose whichever product is cheapest and some shoppers are prepared to pay more for the best quality. We are becoming known as the market leaders and leaders in quality. We get consumers emailing us asking why other brands’ chia smells like fish or tastes bitter and we can provide them with information about how we farm it and why our product is different,” he said.
He explained The Chia Co. ensures high quality product by growing the seeds, which are photosensitive, on farms 15 degrees from the equator for the optimal development of omega-3s. His farmers also grow the seeds during the dry season so that they irrigate with just the right amount of moisture, which impacts nutrition.
“The other thing we do is sun-ripen the chia with a method call swathing,” which takes seven to 10 days, but is more sustainable than using chemicals to force ripening, Foss said.
Educating manufacturers and consumers
The Chia Co. also created demand for its seeds by doing the legwork to formulate prototype products and researching potential health claims.
“Being a new category, we had to commit a lot of time and money up front to research, as the chia industry is in its infancy there is not a lot of market research on chia available. So, we built our own bank of intellectual property on the functional attributes of chia in food manufacturing” over the last six years with third party research facilities such as Dairy Innovation Australia, CSIRO, the Bread Research Institute and Food Science Australia, Foss said.
Now, “we can provide formulation and processing advice on everything from bread to noodles, dairy and fruit smoothies,” he added.
Moving from supplier to manufacturer
The Chia Co. used some of that research, along with knowledge it gained by “physically walking supermarket floors,” to create its own branded Chia Pod line of products in the U.S., Foss said.
“We always knew we wanted to make a ready-to-eat brand and we got the product idea by talking to Whole Foods Market shoppers about how they eat chia. Many of them were soaking chia overnight in coconut and almond milk. We also had a lot of research showing that non-dairy breakfasts were growing exponentially. According to Mintel, there were four times as many consumers limiting dairy as there are gluten. So we chose to make our product non-dairy and plant-based,” Foss said.
He added: “We actually commercialized what a lot of people were making at home already.”
The company also has a lot of ideas for the breakfast space that do not currently exist in the market, Foss said.
He explained that The Chia Co. is focused on breakfast for now “because there are a lot of breakfast products out there that are highly refined and loaded with sugar and people aren’t conscious about what they are feeding themselves and their families. To me, it is very different to selling candy. When you sell candy people are making a conscious choice to have a treat. And if they want to have that treat every day, that is their choice. The problem with breakfast cereals is that people get tricked by claims and have no concept of what a reasonable amount of sugar is to have for breakfast.”
Expanding the category from natural to conventional
While the primary buyers of The Chia Co.’s finished products are health-conscious consumers or athletes who are interested in chia as a nutrient-dense superfood, Foss said the pods offer a lot to mainstream shoppers as well, which he says will help fuel sales as the line expands from the natural channel to conventional food stores.
“A lot of people tell us that mainstream America won’t buy our products, but I disagree, we look at the sales data and it is not just confined to major metropolitan cities. People everywhere, on all different sorts of income levels are unhealthy from the cheap, low-quality, high-sugar foods they eat and they are looking for alternatives,” Foss said.
To help convince mainstream consumers that Chia Pods are for them, The Chia Co. designed the products and packaging to fulfill an additional need: convenient on-the-go food.
“People are leading faster lifestyles and they are trading health for convenience,” but the Chia Pod is packaged so they can have both, Foss said. Each single-serving pod fits comfortably in the hand and has a spoon that was specially designed for people to use to eat quickly without worrying about chia sliding off and onto their clothes.
The company also positioned the Chia Pod as a status symbol so that workers “can feel confident taking it into a business meeting because of what it says about them as a consumer” – that they are busy, efficient and health-conscious, Foss said.
Before people can take a Chia Pod to an office meeting, they need to buy it. And to convince people to do that The Chia Co. heavily samples the products – attending 191 events in the U.S. in 2014, Foss said.
The firm also relies heavily on social media. For example, it ran an Instagram contest in 2014 asking followers to tag images of themselves in a #healthierplace and then awarded one winner a trip to Australia to visit the chia farms. The company also engages consumers by providing access to a registered dietitian who they can ask for advice about using the product.
This education is essential to the continued expansion of chia.
“No parts of the chia category are saturated yet, there are still so many people who don’t know what chia is and we have to keep working and educating about the nutritional value,” said Foss.
With this in mind, he is very optimistic about the future category growth, which Nutrition Business Journal predicted would reach $1 billion by 2020, he said.
“We aim to be the leading company in that growth.”