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Startup Lessons from Zesty Z

September 22, 2016
Photo courtesy of K. Turro.

We’re always on the lookout for new brands and trends that inspire us, supporting both big and small, in their pursuits to grow and be different.

We first met Alexander Harik at Brooklyn Foodworks’ booth at the Fancy Food Show in NYC this past June. He was there along with 2500 other start-ups, but he’s hard to miss. He was high energy, passionate, and all about his za’atar spread, Zesty Z. Oh, and having celebrity chef David Burke hanging around for samples didn’t hurt any!

Working with challenger brands as often as we do, we know a different kind of challenger when we see one. And that’s what Zesty Z is – it’s not just challenging other brands, it’s challenging an entire category! This is why we invited Alexander into our NYC office – we wanted to hear firsthand some the lessons he’s picked up in starting a challenger food brand.

Over pita chips, hummus, and Zesty Z, Alexander laid out his five tips for developing and growing a startup brand:

  1. Follow your gut

We talk a lot about the confidence required to build a brand, and how little room there is for self-doubt. Alexander brought this to life when he insisted you have to follow your gut. His idea for Zesty Z came to him while having dinner with his family. Growing up in a Lebanese household, za’atar was a staple on the dinner table. A blend of Mediterranean herbs and spices, he was used to putting it on everything from cheese to chips. With the rise in popularity of products like hummus and tzatziki, Alexander knew there was an opportunity to introduce a new, fresh and healthy condiment mix.

  1. Have faith in others

Once he knew what he wanted to do, Alexander needed to figure out how to do it – and the learning curve was steep. With a career in finance, the concept of manufacturing a food product was completely foreign. He started by finding the most trustworthy person and role model, his mother, to develop the authentic product recipe. The dynamic duo set forth to conquer the CPG industry by enlisting the help of other family members and friends. As Alexander put it, his whole family has invested their time in Zesty Z. It could have been easy to keep the idea close to his chest and learn by trial and error, but he quickly learned that having faith in others was a great way to learn. Once he did, the number of opportunities only multiplied.

  1. Be authentic

Zesty Z is first and foremost a family business. The idea sprung from dinner with family, and the recipe follows closely his mom’s special homemade za’atar. It wasn’t good enough to simply say that the product idea was inspired by their Lebanese roots, the herb mix for Zesty Z had to come directly from Lebanon, even if it introduced new business complexities. Staying true to the brand and what it represents has been key to the brand’s growth. They know that once you taste Zesty Z you’ll love it, so staying true to how it started is an asset that Alexander has made a priority to protect.

  1. Say yes more and get used to no

Only by being open to learning, partnering and sharing, was Alexander able to really get his footing in the food world. The more he said yes to the opportunities that were presented to him, the more opportunities were presented to him. But there were still a fair share of no’s. And, as we all know, the no’s tend to hurt more. To be an entrepreneur you have to have thick skin. This is something Alexander learned early, and has been lucky enough to posses. He’s gotten used to hearing no as many, if not more often, than hearing yes. But, it’s all part of the ‘Zesty Hustle’, as he calls it.

  1. Going from 0 to 1

When Alexander decided to commit to Zesty Z, he knew he wanted to create a new category, not just a new product. Inspired by Peter Thiel’s book, Zero to One, Alexander knew that he had found the right idea when there were no other competitors in the market; it’s not about recreating the wheel, it’s about building a new one entirely. It might be harder, but it’s the spirit that only a true challenger would understand and have the motivation to do.

We’ll continue to bring in entrepreneurs to our offices to learn more about their challenges and how they succeed in their categories. We’ll report on each one here, and look forward to watching them all grow and be the great brands we know they have the potential to be. We’re rooting for all you challengers out there!

Marie Evers is manager, strategy + design, at Sterling.