Talking with Mark Patterson about Naturally Smart frozen dessert
1. Tell us about Naturally Smart
Naturally Smart is a frozen dessert that’s a healthier alternative to ice cream. To label something as ice cream it needs to have at least 10% butter fat and a certain amount of milk solids. The fat content of Naturally Smart is lower, at about 6%. Our lower fat content and the fact that we don’t have the required level of milk solids means that we can’t call Naturally Smart ice cream, so that’s why we call it a frozen dessert.
Naturally Smart is high in protein - and that’s the whole point of it. It’s also all natural - made with milk, cream and natural sugar. Some people wanted me to use corn syrup or artificial sweeteners but it was important to me to be as natural as possible with all our ingredients.
The protein and natural ingredients will only matter if we get the taste right so great taste is also a big part of Naturally Smart.
2. Why is a higher protein content so important to Naturally Smart?
Protein has a lot of positive attributes to your diet, such as its role in rebuilding muscle. We use whey protein concentrate because it’s one of the best forms of protein in terms of absorption and use by your body. It’s a dairy product that’s a complete protein with all 20 amino acids, including the 8 essential amino acids. The whey protein concentrate we use is also very pure - we get it directly from the dairy.
Greek yogurt has really popularized the idea of providing a higher protein content in a healthier alternative to regular yogurt and that’s the trend we’re working from and bringing to frozen desserts.
3. Did you think of using Greek yogurt as a base for Naturally Smart?
I looked at it but when it’s been tried in frozen form the taste has never translated well and all you end up with is a product that doesn’t taste right but with way too much sugar. We do use sugar to provide some sweetness, but we wanted to be on the low to moderate end when it came to the amount of sugar in a serving.
4. Did you ever consider using an artificial sweetener such as Stevia?
Stevia is still not considered natural. Some people label it as natural but it’s still extracted from leaves and processed. I didn’t want that. I wanted everything to be as natural as possible.
5. What does it mean to be a healthy frozen dessert?
According to FDA standards, Naturally Smart is considered a good source of protein, a good source of calcium and low in sodium. We’re also gluten free. A dessert is still a treat but we’re making a treat with real, positive benefits and Naturally Smart delivers those benefits in a package that minimizes the sugar and fat, especially compared to the alternatives.
6. Who is the audience for Naturally Smart?
I was originally targeting athletes as my customer. They’re still one of our focuses but we’ve realized there’s a broader and much bigger market for what we’re doing. Naturally Smart appeals to a lot of people such as mothers, and people who are shopping at Publix and looking at the nutrition labels on their food and who want to make a better decision about what they feed their families. That’s our core audience.
7. What flavors does Naturally Smart come in?
Chocolate and vanilla, so far. In the retail world chocolate and vanilla account for about 75-80% of sales. We had to get those flavors right to begin with. We have more flavors coming. We’ve done the work to create coconut and coffee flavors although we haven’t started production yet. Green tea is another flavor we’re working on. We’re trying to keep things simple for now. We’ll branch into other things down the line.
8. What’s the most popular flavor - chocolate or vanilla?
It’s 50-50, right down the middle.
9. Why is it important to you to be based in Jacksonville?
There’s so much going on in Jacksonville and I want to be a part of it. Just like Ben and Jerry’s is associated with Vermont, I want people to associate Naturally Smart with Jacksonville. And like Haagen Dazs I want Naturally Smart to be a national product.
The local community here in Jacksonville has been incredibly supportive. Whether it’s people offering to invest or willing to help open doors there’s just a huge willingness on the part of people to help out.
10. You have a lot of celebrity sports endorsements. How did that come about?
I just started asking people. When I’d ask someone their first reaction was “where do you want me to show up?” A lot of athletes had tasted Naturally Smart and thought it was a great idea and wanted to help. I wanted to bring together a community of many different athletes to show their support for Naturally Smart. CW17 let us use their facilities to take some pictures, so we went in there. We got a photographer for $40. Everyone was enthusiastic to be part of it and just showed up to help. It was really great (picture).
11. Where can people buy Naturally Smart?
For the latest locations you can check our Facebook page (here).
We’re at Grassroots Natural Market II in Fleming Island, Bio Max, and Dr. Capasso’s Thin Centers. Whole Foods on Mandarin has just picked us up as well.
If you’re going to One Spark you can also come out to try us there.
Our goal is to get into the supermarkets. Publix is ultimately where we want to be because our ideal customer is the Publix customer. And right up there with Publix are Whole Foods and Fresh Market - that would give us coverage on most of the Southeast corner of the United States. We’re also talking to a few distributors who are well connected in the health food area and would be a good fit for us.
12. What does it take to get into Publix?
Proof. They want to be sure there’s a market for Naturally Smart. Then there are some logistics issues and funding requirements for advertising, but that’s the easy part.
13. What about going into ice cream or frozen yogurt locations that sell by the cone or dish?
We thought about that but it’s hard to get in because so many of the outlets are chains and franchises. Kilwin’s in Jacksonville wanted to try us out but they couldn’t get it through their company process to offer it in their store.
14. If someone wants to encourage their local retailer to carry Naturally Smart is there anything they can do?
Yes! Many retail stores have suggestion boxes onsite or “contact us” emails on their websites. Grocery managers are also very receptive to customer suggestions. We’ve created a short form you can send to the retailer, drop in the suggestion box, or give to the grocery manager to ask the retailer to take a look at Naturally Smart (download form). There’s still a big education phase we’re going through, so anything people can do to help get the word out will help.
15. What size does Naturally Smart come in?
Our main size is a pint container - the same as you’d see for the premium ice creams such as Ben and Jerry’s. We also provide a 3 gallon container for food service businesses such as a hospital or a school. Schools are looking for local products and healthier options, so I think we’ll have a good fit in that area. There’s a lot more we can do but we’re just getting going.
16. Any plans for a dessert bar format?
Yes, that will probably be our next format. One segment of our audience is people who are trying to lose weight or are on a weight management program. A bar format will be very important to them because it offers a convenient way to manage portion control.
I was talking to Jeff Olson, one of the owners of 3 Moms Ice Cream - the local food truck here in Jacksonville. Naturally Smart is perfect for 3 Moms and they said they’d love to carry it - but they can only sell what’s in a bar format. So, we know we need to get there and we’re already thinking about it, but we haven’t got a formal timeline in place yet.
17. Can you tell us about your background?
I was in the restaurant industry for 20 years. I managed Old Siam for 10 years and Dwight’s Bistro for 10 years. During that time I had been noticing that there were so many options in the frozen dessert aisle - some more healthy than others - but the taste of the supposedly healthy options was just horrible. I began working on an alternative with a few people and I just knew we could come up with something better. I hired a food scientist and a manufacturing consultant. We spent a weekend in a plant and just fooled around. I knew the nutrition values I wanted but I wanted them in an all natural product that tasted good. We worked back and forth changing things until we got it right. That’s how Naturally Smart was born. I’ve been working on this for almost 2 years, and heads-down for the last 6 months. We went into production in October .
18. How did you know when you had the right taste?
I knew what I wanted. The products that were out there had a little crystallized texture to them. I wanted something that had the creaminess and texture of a high fat, premium ice cream, without the fat. For someone with very little experience in the dairy world I knew I was asking for a lot. So, I had a lot of input to the final taste. And we’ve been doing a lot of tastings around Jacksonville to get feedback and to make sure other people like it as much as I do. We’ve easily sampled over 2,000 people by now.
19. What’s the feedback you get?
People are blown away. When they taste Naturally Smart they can’t believe that something that tastes as good as it does can also be good for them.
20. Why did you decide to quit the restaurant business and go all in with Naturally Smart?
It was the opportunity I saw in the market. I didn’t like the options that were in place and I believed in myself that I could create something different and better. I tried working with some local dairies but that didn’t work out. I hand made it myself and tried delivering it out of the back of my car but that didn’t work either. It’s been a learning experience.
21. What have been some of the challenges getting Naturally Smart going?
The biggest challenge is getting people to understand what Naturally Smart is. It’s a new product and a new concept. There’s nothing exactly like it locally or in retail. There are a few products you can buy online but they’re super expensive.
22. Have you had any big surprises?
Yes, I thought it would be super easy to work with local health food stores and wellness clinics here in Jacksonville. When I walk in I’m surprised at how many don’t have freezers. They love Naturally Smart but they don’t have anywhere to store it and we can’t afford to put in freezers for them.
I’ve been in the restaurant industry long enough that most of the other issues aren’t surprises, just part of running a new business. I’ve had a lot of great help from people in the community. The media here has been great.
One good surprise was a call I got from the strength coach of a local professional sports team. He was in Colonel Mustard’s at the Beach ordering burgers for his kids when he saw my card pinned to the wall. While he was waiting he gave me a call to ask about Naturally Smart. Through that connection I ended up talking to the person who handled team dining. From there I went to the purchasing department. They had requirements for a $5 million insurance coverage and things like that. It was way too much for me at our size so I ended up connecting with Blue Buddha who are local food distributors and were working with the team. So that worked out great for us. Blue Buddha handles our distribution and now they’re working with us at Whole Foods as well.
23. Do you manufacture Naturally Smart in Jacksonville?
No. I would if I could. I have a plant in Georgia making our supply. They were willing to work with us at the small volumes we had to start. We were doing a lot of experimenting and we needed someone who was good with that and could work with us as we made changes. We couldn’t afford to commit to 10,000 units every time we wanted to try something.
24. Can you tell us about your participation in One Spark?
We’re very excited to be at One Spark. We’ll be in front of Chamblin’s Book Store right near Hemming Plaza and close to the food trucks. We want to make it a really fun event. We’ll have Miss California coming in to help at our booth. We’ll be giving away samples. When we sample we can go through 500 samples an hour so I don’t know what to expect at One Spark. I’m expecting I’ll have a pretty sore arm by the end.
25. What do you hope to accomplish at One Spark?
One Spark will provide Naturally Smart with a ton of media exposure. I need to be in front of people. I need people to taste Naturally Smart to know what it is. That’s what One Spark will do - it will give us a lot of media exposure as well as a ton of exposure to people who come to the event. If One Spark leads to investment opportunities I’ll be very receptive to that, but it’s a secondary consideration.
26. What’s next?
We want to saturate the Jacksonville market to get as much exposure for Naturally Smart as we can. Jacksonville is our test market to find out what works and what doesn’t. We’ll use what we learn here to build a template to move into other markets.
27. What about longer term?
We want to be a national product, maybe even international. For some reason we get a very strong response in Latin countries. I’m not sure why and I have no proof of anything but it happens all the time. I’ve been contacted by multiple companies in South America, so maybe that’s a market that’ll work for us longer term.