In 1998, Mark Ansley thought his 16-month-old son was deaf and brought him to a doctor. His hearing was fine, the physician said, but Zack was on "the spectrum." Ansley didn't know what that meant, so the doctor explained that autism is a neurological disorder and that there is no cure. One thing that might help support Zack's brain development, the doctor said, was to make sure he eats foods high in omega-3, a fatty acid known to promote healthy brain development.
"Growing up in the South, my grannie always gave me cod liver oil to prevent colds," Ansley says. "But there was no way Zack was going to ingest that, given the fact he has a high sensitivity to taste and smell."
Zack refused to eat most foods. If the smell, taste, or texture wasn't just right, he wouldn't touch it. As he grew, his diet consisted almost exclusively of macaroni and cheese, chocolate milk, and McDonald's hamburgers—yes, the all-American diet, but Ansley knew he had to get Zack to eat nutritional food. He tried dozens of products that boasted healthy ingredients but nothing seemed to work. One day, Ansley came across a cookie made with chia, which is high in protein, and omega-3. "Zack ate half a dozen," Ansley says. Ansley decided he would make his own fish oil cookie, but it would take more than a decade for him to get the company on all fours.
He was no stranger to the food industry, having run Ansley Foods—a $5 million business selling barbecue ribs to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan through the Department of Defense—for eight years. About five years ago, as the war in Iraq drew to a close, Ansley decided to finish what he'd started years ago and perfect his "brain food" cookie recipe.
In 2012, he formally launched Zack's Snacks (under parent company SnapFoods), with a line of four different foods packed with chia and omega-3, with his flagship product being the "Omega Rounds," or fish oil cookies. Ansley calls his snacks "stealth health" because they're made with natural ingredients like rolled oats, fresh fruit, and vegetables and contain no GMOs, preservatives, or artificial ingredients, but still taste like snack food.
This year, Ansley added fruit and vegetable sorbet and ice cream sandwiches, all made with ingredients like spinach, beets, and kale. You'd think veggie ice cream would taste awful, but it actually tastes pretty good.
While omega-3 is beneficial to developing brains, Ansley knew healthful cookies weren't just for kids. Chia and fish oil are great for athletes looking for fuel and Ansley knew the perfect guy to punt his product to—one of his neighbors, a football player for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ansley would see the guy walking his dog around the block, but he didn't have the nerve to approach him. But one day, he decided to go outside and strike up a conversation with Demetrius McCray, who plays cornerback. He told him about the potential benefits of omega-3 cookies. McCray was intrigued, but before he would take the cookie seriously, he had to run it by the Jags' dietitian, Mindy Black.
With strict exclusive agreements with sponsors like Gatorade, any whiff of a competitive product is not allowed. (Players also have to be wary about ingesting prohibited substances.) But Gatorade doesn't make fish-oil cookies, so Black decided to take a look at the packaging when McCray asked her to check it out.
"I was skeptical at first; the guys are always bringing me some new product their friend made to check out," Black tells Inc. "But I turned it over and read the ingredients and saw that the first ingredient was oats, not sugar, and figured the guys wouldn't touch it."
Black put a few Omega Rounds on the "fueling station," a designated area packed with approved foodstuffs, drinks, and smoothies for the players. Soon enough, the samples were all gone and the guys were asking for more. "Now, Zack's Snacks are approved for the fueling station," Black says. And you can imagine how much fuel an NFL team consumes.
Getting your product on an NFL fueling station, which only has about 10 products, including peanut butter sandwiches, protein bars, fresh fruit, and smoothies, is a big deal. Black says hundreds of food companies pitch her during the season, so Ansley is lucky, especially as a small outfit.
What convinced her to approve Zack's Snacks? Black says it was the omega-3. While each cookie has only 100 mg of omega-3, she says each player usually eats three, which then makes it "brain food."
"We have known rich omega-3 can decrease the risk of Alzheimer's in adults and is also known as an anti-inflammatory. In children, omega-3 helps brain development," she says.
Black is also the sports dietitian for Jacksonville University's athletic department, so she recommend all 501 athletes eat Zack's Snacks, giving Ansley another hungry demographic. "Athletes are superstitious and do not like to break their routine," Ansley says. "They are very careful about what they put into their bodies."
With other colleges and pro teams expressing interest, Ansley believes his small company, which has taken in only $100,000 in revenue but has raised $500,000 by crowd funding investors at One Spark, a Florida-based accelerator, will be expanding quickly. In February, a Zack's Snack's commercial will air on the Impact Network and feature a handful of NFL players like T.J. Thomas.
Ansley is also in talks with the U.S. Olympic team and has made a deal to provide Zack's Snacks to Major League Football, a new minor league launching teams in eight cities without NFL teams.
"I started this to trick my son to eat healthy foods. We started with Omega Rounds and now have spinach and kale sorbet," he says. "Kids love it and they eat it. It's been my goal this whole time, even though my son is now 19, to be able to feed him healthy food."