It’s a daunting trip to the bottom of Mexico’s Barrancas del Cobre, the Copper Canyons of the Sierra Madre. The cliffs are high — higher than the Grand Canyon’s — and the winding roads to the bottom are narrow, with a sheer precipice that hugs the tires of a rugged SUV all the way down.
“Lots of bad things happen down there and probably will,” Christopher McDougall writes in his book, “Born to Run”: “Survive the man-eating jaguars, deadly snakes and blistering heat, and you’ve still got to deal with ‘canyon fever,’ a potentially fatal freak-out brought on by the Barrancas’ desolate eeriness.”
But it isn’t all freaky emptiness — people live there. The Tarahumara are an indigenous people whose members retreated to this unforgiving part of Mexico when the Spanish conquistadors arrived. They have limited contact with the outside world, and the tribe ekes out a living through subsistence farming.
Still, that’s not what fascinates most people about the Tarahumara: They are, despite, or perhaps because of, the formidable terrain, the best long-distance runners in the world.
And there’s an unexpected connection between this remote running tribe that lives deep in the canyons of Mexico — and Richmond.
More specifically, the company that popularized them in the United States — Scott’s Addition-based Health Warrior — directly links them to this city.
McDougall’s bestselling book inspired the company’s founders, Shane Emmett, Dan Gluck and Nick Morris, to swerve unexpectedly into entrepreneurship.
After reading “Born to Run,” Morris began experimenting with the tiny seeds that the Tarahumara mix with water — called iskiate by the tribe, or chia fresca in Central America — to help keep them going on their long, grueling runs.
In his 30s, Morris says, his diet “had gone to crap.” But after he began consuming chia, he says: “I started feeling better. I started losing weight and having more energy.”
The nutrient-dense seeds are loaded with fiber, protein, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. But they were difficult to find.
Morris asked his friend, Dan Gluck, what he thought about them. Gluck, a dedicated long distance runner who still competes in Ironman competitions and marathons across the country, says he became, like Morris, obsessed with chia.
“I really started noticing a difference in my overall level of energy,” Gluck says. “It was then that I started telling other friends about them — with no intention of starting a business.”
In 2009, both men were working together at a hedge fund in New York, but there was a key difference between the two. Gluck was an investor in the coconut water company, Zico — and he started drawing parallels.
“Zico took a product that was genuinely healthy, indigenous to another country — and popular in another country — but unknown here in the States,” Gluck says. He saw an opportunity to bring chia seeds to a wider audience.
But neither Gluck nor Morris wanted to ditch their day jobs and work full-time to launch a new business. They were spending nights researching chia and looking for suppliers, and they needed help. Enter Shane Emmett — “the greatest human being in the world,” Morris says.
Emmett, a former lawyer for Barack Obama’s campaign, was finishing up a stint working for then-governor Tim Kaine. Emmett was at loose ends.
The call from Gluck, his former college roommate, came at the perfect time. “I didn’t want to go work for a real law firm,” Emmett says. “Working for [Kaine] was the most interesting legal job I’d ever have.”
Like Morris, Emmett was getting older and wasn’t in the best of shape. He’d reached a point that most of us do when we hit our 30s — the realization that we aren’t immortal, that health matters. All three men had been athletes in college, but only Gluck was still active.
More importantly, Emmett also was ready for a new cause.
“In typical Shane fashion,” Morris says, “a day later we’ve got a 65-page report of how great chia is and what an opportunity this is.”
A food-industry startup is expensive, so the partners decided to start selling their product on Amazon. The three found a source in South America that could provide the kind of chia seeds they were looking for: a clean product, for one thing. Tiny sticks and rocks usually came along with seeds at the time. They also found one that could be tracked from the farm to the distributor and matched the nutritional profile claimed. And fortunately, chia is a hardy plant, so it’s unusual for farmers to use pesticides on their crops. Even irrigation is mostly unnecessary.
There wasn’t a lot happening with the seeds online. The three were working out of their homes and had garages piled with product. Emmett says he had 5,000 pounds of chia seeds stored in his condo’s hallway at one point.
A co-founder of Bear Naked Granola, Kelly Flatly, gave them some advice: Get Health Warrior into independent natural food stores.
Emmett enlisted his brother, Casey, who lived in New York, and the two began trying to convince store owners to give them shelf space. They figured out which were the top-selling stores in the country — surprisingly, Richmond’s Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market held the No. 2 spot. The rest, unsurprisingly, were scattered throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. The brothers convinced stores to take the product on consignment, with Ellwood Thompson owner Rick Hood as their first supporter.
It was a hard sell to customers. At demos, they offered samples of the seeds mixed in water. “Honestly,” Casey says, “it grosses people out.”
It’s a drink that’s been compared to frog spawn — chia seeds soak up the water around them and form a gray gel, leaving the little black seed right in the middle, suspended in the drink. Although chia is almost tasteless, the texture that it creates is an unusual one — slick, with a little pop when you crunch it between your teeth.
Making it tougher, no one knew anything about the seeds. For most people, the terracotta Chia Pets hawked on television was the only frame of reference. “If we sold 10 bags in a week,” Casey says, “we were psyched.”
It wasn’t long before Emmett, Gluck and Morris realized that they needed to sell the seeds in a more palatable form. But they wanted a specific product, one that was a legitimately healthy snack — packed with nutrients, low-calorie and low in sugar — that tasted great.
Most of the health bars on the shelves — Clif Bar and Lunabar leading the way — largely were things full of sugar that could be called cookies with added nutrients.
“My theory,” Emmett says, “is that sugar is a lot cheaper than using chia seeds or pumpkin seeds or almonds.” If you pump up the sugar, you can pump up the profits.
Once they had a bar they liked, things began puttering along with the retail business. And then, all hell broke loose.
Shane Emmett is a towering, bearded man in his late 30s — you can instantly see why he was an athlete in college. He’s also quick to smile and he finds ways to tell his story that’s endearingly self-deprecating, even though he’s been running the show at Health Warrior since his partners more or less took a back seat once the initial team was in place.
“It’s quite remarkable,” Gluck says, “but during the five years or so we’ve run this company, we’ve never had one disagreement or argument.”
With his partners up in New York, Emmett ran — and still runs — the day-to-day operations of the business in Richmond. That meant a lot of traveling, pounding the pavement and in-store demos.
“We were going around and just asking for a shot,” his brother says. “We didn’t know how to write an invoice — we didn’t even know how much this stuff should cost.”
Within one 24-hour period, that all changed. The Wall Street Journal published a story about Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and his secret superfood.
“I was not aware that Ray Rice eats Chia Pets,” teammate Terrell Suggs said in the article. The product sold out on Amazon in an hour, and Health Warrior suddenly had a supply problem.
“We were totally out of stock for two months,” Emmett says.
About a month later, Whole Foods came knocking. It wanted to launch the bars nationally. “We had no money, we barely had employees and didn’t know what we were doing,” Emmett says. They had four months to get the bars on Whole Foods’ shelves.
Jesse Itzler, a former rapper under the name Jesse Jaymes, and a partner in Zico, through which he met Gluck, came in as an investor in the company, in what Emmett calls a friends-and-family round of financing. The local investor group New Richmond Ventures came aboard too.
Soon, once Health Warrior found its place on Whole Foods’ shelves, it found athletes investing, including running back Arian Foster of the Houston Texans. He also became the face of the brand in the early days.
Growth was explosive. Austin Harris, a young analyst at BB&T Capital Markets, had taken the leap in 2012, coming on as chief financial officer. “BB&T thought I was insane,” he says. His co-workers gave him a Chia Pet as a parting gift.
Harris helped the company get up to speed, establishing payroll and accounting systems as Health Warrior rapidly expanded. Like the founders, he’s passionate about the outdoors — running, cycling and hiking. He also worked with a lot of food-related businesses at BB&T.
“I’m a really active person,” Harris says. “Those two themes collided right around the time I met Shane.” Emmett knew he needed a finance guy — “someone who can count,” he said. Harris created the financial backbone of the company.
At the same time, Emmett “never thought of Health Warrior as a company that’s just going to make a product and sell it to people,” Harris says. “That’s never what it’s been about. Health Warrior — and Shane and our other two founders — has always been about making the Western diet in general much better. Making people healthier.”
It’s a theme I hear repeatedly from everyone I talk to at Health Warrior. It’s a team of true believers. The bars are “radically convenient real food,” they tell me.
“If we actually want to change things,” Emmett says, “we can do it much more quickly and build value at the same time by doing it in our industry — which is exactly what we’re doing. We’re not the food police but food cheerleaders.”
The growth has continued apace — 13,757 percent since 2012, to be exact. “Our first run was 25,000 [bars],” Emmett says. “We had no idea how we were going to sell all of them— the first batch came in the wrong wrappers, [and] the chia seeds were black and got stuck in your teeth.” Health Warrior now produces millions of bars a month in a manufacturing plant in Ohio. And the company has gone from around 20 stores in the beginning to more than 12,000 now. You can find them in Target, Wegmans and Kroger supermarkets across the country.
Two years ago, industry group Seurat named Health Warrior as one of the top challenger brands, and in 2016, it took the No. 205 spot in Inc. magazine’s list of the 5,000 fastest-growing companies. Inc. reported that the company’s revenue was $9.8 million in 2015, although Emmett declined to share more recent figures. It now has 34 full-time employees, including a sales team that stretches nationwide, and a product line that’s expanded to include a protein bar and one made with pumpkin seeds that recently launched at Wegmans. Health Warrior rounds out its staff with another 20 part-time employees and 30 independent contractors.
It’s a long way to come in five years. And more expansion is on the horizon — the company recently secured another round of financing. “We’re really building the company this year for what we’ll need next year,” says Emmett.
Still, Emmett, Gluck and Morris haven’t forgotten the people who metaphorically handed them their first chia seeds — the Tarahumara. The region has experienced crippling drought during the last few years and the tribe’s farms have been decimated. People are moving to towns and cities, and if the trend continues, it’s possible that the Tarahumara culture will be lost.
Last year, members of the tribe grew their first commercial crop of chia seeds on a farm that Health Warrior helped restore. And several weeks ago, the company launched a Kickstarter campaign, Operation Farm & Run, to continue its work. It’s making a special Mexican chocolate bar that will use seed grown by the Tarahumara. Profits from the bars’ sales will go back to the tribe to help refurbish more farms and increase commercial chia production.
The work is in line with Health Warrior’s mission. Emmett and his partners are sincere when they say that they want to leave the world a better place.
Along with “Born to Run,” two more books, Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History in Four Meals” and Dan Barber’s “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food,” have inspired the three to push the company in a direction that takes into account more than the bottom line — health, a better planet and a hand stretched out to those in need are instead the goals that the company’s profits support.
“Our vision is that better health builds a stronger society,” Emmett says. “It’s hard to have a healthy society if it isn’t [actually] healthy — people don’t feel good and it ladders up. That’s what we think, so we’re doing our little part to try and fix that.” S