Image credit: Zane Adams

Meet the founder: Zane Adams of FedUp Foods on his advocacy for regenerative supply chains

January 13, 2023

Zane Adams is co-CEO of FedUp Foods, a producer of private label fermented beverages and parent company of its Buchi Kombucha. For him, food is medicine and more people are becoming aware of this. However, with the view that current food systems are extractive, he is championing for and delves into the three pillars of regenerative supply chains.

“Species are dying out and it’s up to us to figure out ways to harness what’s there so that we get the best nutrition possible into our bodies,” he says.

In this interview, Zane (ZA) tells AFN how he believes food should be produced and the role that FedUp Foods is taking in spreading awareness of regenerative supply chains, as well as its benefits for the consumer which trickle down to farmers.

Having pivoted from an expansive real estate career, he also explains why entrepreneurs should grow other real estate assets concurrently as they grow their businesses.

“I think a really smart way to grow a business is to grow real estate asset in tandem to the actual business, either manufacturing, food processing, shirt printing, newspaper or an online digital service, ” he says.

Homemade fermented raw kombucha tea with different flavorings.
Image credit: iStock

AFN: How would you describe regenerative supply chains?

ZA: I like to categorize regenerative supply chains in three buckets or three groups.

The first group is obviously the microbiological density in the soil and I think about our work really in three soils. The first soil in the microbiological soil. What are all the inputs and practices that are being used to help cultivate and nurture a very wonderful, top layer of soil in which the vast majority of our products are grown? There’s a ton of information and resources out there which speaks specifically to that, there’s tons of tools from permaculture to good forestry which we can have conversations around, the extra minutes of animals and cows and all of those wonderful tips and tricks to biodynamic, which is seeding and working with the soil at particular times of the year with the various inputs.

So I like to say that there is a plethora of closed loop closed system inputs that help us create really good soil. I would say that’s my first bucket.

The second soil is the inner soil of ourselves as people. What I mean by that is in order for us to begin to think holistically and in a way that carries both this awareness of what’s happening and the resolve to respond to what’s happening, is a cultivation of an inner soil that values all human life.

That value sees the individual spirit as an absolutely necessary ingredient and thinks about how we make choices, and that is connected directly to how we work with ourselves as people, how we work with our farmers, the people who grow the food, the people who manufacture and process food, who ship the food, who bring the inputs to our facility in Asheville, North Carolina to our employees that are brewing, fermenting, flavoring, packaging, shipping. All of those pieces are utilizing what I would call the inner soil or the inner compass. So that’s the second bucket.

The third bucket I think, is what I would call our sociological or our community soil. This is where the interaction between the biological soil and the inner soil come together with other systems and people on this planet, realizing that they’re all interconnected.

There are various different modalities within community soil that I think help us navigate that. One good example is valuing growing practices that take into account the people. Meaning we pay people what they ought to be paid, we feed the soil what it should be fed and we utilize systems like carbon as means to get product to manufacturers.

Manufacturers like me, utilize systems that are closed loop within our facility that are using the best that we can to conserve water and energy and in the making of the product.

We opt not to use a plastic or poly-based packaging and then think about the best ways to get that product to market. Each of those components are working together in an ecosystem and I think that is what makes up what I would call the sociological or the community soil.

When you add all of those together, you then begin to have what I would consider a regenerative landscape and that helps build the pipeline for more products in particular, like if we took for example raspberries, which are a perennial crop, they help nurture the soil.

So if you nurture the soil where those raspberries are grown, with the inputs that are appropriate- that are not just about a monocrop but actually dealing with the multi flora and species that make up the ecosystem where those raspberries grow- you do well by the planet, you do well by that resource and it will give you raspberries twice a year from now until forever.  You don’t really necessarily have to maintain it and it grows in a way that supports itself.

This should be the way that companies operate period; it should be the baseline and then you buy it and you enjoy it. And then you return that system again.

AFN: How do you differentiate yourself from other fermented food manufacturers? And what would you say is the uniqueness that FedUp Foods brings to the market?

For this I’ll reverse the order to continue to build on that idea around the three soils that ‘food was fed up’ with the extractive food system as it currently exists.

The agricultural landscape at which food is produced is not produced in a way where it will regenerate itself. It has been commoditized and because it’s been commoditized, it is all about how much can you get me and how much cheaper can you make the product, so we were we were and the whys of why we do what we do is we looked at the food system, and notice that the people who had the most amount of money had the most access to buy really high quality food, period. And typically disproportionately in this country, as I’m sure a lot of other places.

Those people who have money tend to be people who have typically been in the most seats of power. And those people in seats of power, manipulate and control the way that food is distributed. So when we created the business, we wanted to create a platform that provides food access to all.

In order to do that, and in order to create a food system that gives access to high nutrient dense foods, we have to work from the soil up. So we have to make sourcing nutrient dense inputs and nutrient dense raw ingredients a priority.

We talk about a ‘farmer first’ ‘resilience first’ kind of ethos, which means we’re looking towards those suppliers who are using regenerative methods to grow their crops because that in and of itself provides better food if we have better inputs.

We think that will make a systematic exponential change in the way farmers are growing, meaning that they would have more business that’s asking them to grow better food at a level of scale that will help really shift their lives.

It’s not like ‘well, I only buy organic because I can afford it’ but this becomes more of a way of life and the only way to make it accessible and affordable is that we get more of those inputs in the system. So that’s the biggest differentiation between us and other manufacturers off the bat. We’re looking to change the game and the playing field of not just buying organic because you can pay the premium but utilizing organic and regenerative ingredients as the baseline of how we source food. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that fermented foods in general is a very, very, very small fraction of the total food business in and around the globe, in particular the United States. So coming into that line of work where we’re working with both the yeast and the bacterial communities.

This gives us an opportunity to take those really important nutrient dense inputs and bring them through a process that allows them to be consumed in a safe and very accessible manner. At this point in time, we are the largest functional fermented food and beverage producer in the United States. And the reason for that is that I think more and more people are becoming aware that food is medicine.

Now, we’re in a really intrinsically, drastically changing climate. We have to think about those inputs that are coming into our food system and into our bodies, and have added even more an acute sense of awareness because they’re becoming limited.

AFN: What was the regulatory process like for you? Given this is still a novel food industry.

ZA: There’s varying different degrees of regulatory compliance, where you have a local municipality and in our area, that local group is split between a city and a county. Both have a level of jurisdiction or oversight over what’s produced and made in those spaces. Then we have the state level. I live in the state of North Carolina. So that’s another level again, and then you have a federal area like the United States of America, the big government, that there’s another level again.

In each of those spaces, regulations vary. They don’t necessarily all share the same processes. They don’t share the same regulatory regulations.

Fermented foods is literally a new food group to be understood. So they want to move you into juice, they want to move  into boxes that already exist.

It was actually really, really difficult to get our product into a place where people could buy because, in essence, as humans, we know a lot about yeast. We don’t really know about bacteria. We think bacteria is bad, versus thinking that bacteria is primal and primordial. It is the nutrient density of of micro organisms that created all life on planet.

So when you take that community and match it with a yeast community you have a Pandora’s box of confusion for regulators they don’t know or understand parts of science.

I think it was easier for us to get qualified to brew. But even to this day, we still have states which have prevented us selling kombucha for fear that it would have too much alcohol or fear that it wasn’t safe to drink because, it wasn’t heated or someone could get some bacterial infection.

We’ve spent our 14 years alongside growing our business, with educating the industry around kombucha and the awareness of it.

AFN: Will you also venture into ingredients manufacturing or will you just be an entirely finished product manufacturer?

ZA: We’ve looked at making our products available to various groups, by way of an ingredient. We’re experimenting with some now with dry kombucha being used as a preservative in food. You can use highly acidified kombucha in order to lower pH so that pathogenic things can’t exist.

We’re also looking at other ways that kombucha can be used in food processing and food manufacturing as a standalone ingredient.

So we are just beginning in our innovation process to look at how we can make either the waste or a highly dried or acidified version of kombucha as an ingredient for other industries either as preservative, flavor or as a component.

AFN: Could you tell me more about your background before FedUp Foods? And what led you into this very specific segment of food?

ZA: I’ve been with FedUp Foods for 14 years as one of the founders. There’s four of us and I’ve had the pleasure of serving as CEO.

I guess the impetus for me getting into food as I say is I just love it. I started to look at alternative diets, and particularly raw veganism for a little while and it was an area of interest in and around how can we create really alive food that helps support the body.

Prior to my time here, I worked specifically in global development and in particular real estate development. I was working in a very global sense between the United States and the UK and then worked in Northern Europe quite a bit.

My focus was particularly working in and around those individuals who are similar to food actually, when you think about it, that we’re really good at their craft, and leverage those capabilities to build resorts from single family residential to multi unit developments.

That was thinking about a whole kind of ecosystem of a space where people came to for vacation and or purchase for short to long term space.

So we were thinking about the food that was served, we’re thinking about how traffic and infrastructure was moving through, let’s say our 30 acre development into the places where people lived and how they gained energy, all the way down to my role of the actual furnishings and merchandising in each of the places where people live.

So that was like, the sheets and the fibers where they were made and who made them. I went in to source that from people who were seamstresses and or people who had worked in making fiber that had never had access before to a commercialized system, and then helping them scale from that point.

Prior to my time at federal foods and in this development world, there was a very limited kind of product that we were offering. People didn’t vacation in vacation homes. Everyone always went to hotels at the time. They didn’t have a place where they could afford to go it was always the very, very wealthy.

So we built systems in place that allowed people to utilize what we call the ‘points currency’ to travel to our network of properties and projects globally. And we focused a lot on experiential places like old 14 or 15 century places or a particular Italian property that we developed or a property in wine country that had been doing wine procurement and fermentation of grapes for 200 years.

We were able to kind of create a bed and breakfast experience in this part of the world that had been locked away for a very long time, with the idea that people can go in and learn about the food, learn about the culture, and be immersed in this really traditional way of making wine.

So those kinds of places were where I’ve had most success, I think in my career, where there is beauty and wonderful detail that has been forgotten or overlooked.

AFN: Real estate’s is a very lucrative industry and you chose to transition to entrepreneurship. What was the move like? Did you get any support?

ZA: It has played a part in how we’ve grown our business now. I believe that real estate is when people can own property. I believe it’s true sovereignty ensures power. It also gives you a sense of having an asset that you can leverage in many different ways that provide safety.

If you’re not in a hunt for survival, you make better decisions, right? If you’re if you’ve eaten a good lunch, you make better food choices when you go shopping because you’re not hungry. You know, sometimes you go to the store and you buy a bunch of ingredients. You’re like, ‘oh my goodness, what am I just buying and even make a meal out of?’

I feel like real estate’s really similar. So when we started, we we went into a relationship where we were leasing from an individual on a farm and we kind of reconverted his warehouse space. It was very benevolent and he was very kind we. We got a stroke of luck there.

But moving forward, I knew that in order for us to have a really resilient business, we needed to own the real estate and so what we did was different than other manufacturers. Most manufacturers go and they get a new place that they’re leasing. and then they build their factory.

We decided and really because of my real estate background, to go in and purchase our next facility. So that’s what we did. We purchased the facility that we currently have. And as a result, we continue to purchase property around our facility when the time was right because that gave us the ability to develop the product or develop our real estate in a way that made sense.

So we spawned off a real estate holding company, which still owns the real estate that we have. Most recently, last year, we purchased our second facility about 40 minutes north of our our flagship facility. This was a space that offered us more access in terms of distribution, but again, we purchased the space and we bought it at a really good way and now the value has been appraised three times over. So we have a very high value asset on our balance sheet.

I think a really smart way to grow a business is to grow real estate asset in tandem to the actual business, either manufacturing, food processing, shirt printing, newspaper or an online digital service. No matter where you go. It can be anchored by an asset that can be made liquid at times when you need to make a strategic shift or a strategic opportunity has come and you want to take advantage of that.

So you can leverage some of that frozen asset that’s been growing in the bank for you over time or you can sell your business and still have your real estate and let that continue to grow and you can choose to liquidate that or keep it in perpetuity and find other ways for that real estate to generate revenue for you.

AFN: So entrepreneurs should not only focus on growing their businesses but on growing their assets concurrently?

ZA: I’m a big  believer that if you if you are stewarding something that you have domain and a relative sense of control, it allows you to make really good decisions around how you want to grow a business or take a lot of risks.

You have something to fall back on. You have a root system that keeps you anchored.

AFN: What impact do you want FedUp Foods to have on our global nutrition systems?

ZA: If I had a magic wand and I could wave it, in an ideal world, I would love that a company like ours was the standard, that no matter what store you went into, you were buying really nutrient dense food that was grown by well intended farmers using great practices that manage to get to your shelf in the most efficient and climate friendly way ever.

I would love it that there were hundreds of thousands of my company, all over the world and individual manufacturers really began to look at the purpose of what they do. And not just making money for their investors, but we’re actually really wanting to provide a food or a product that helps the betterment of people’s lives.

So, they would actually start to lean into not just how the product is made from themselves, but where they get their ingredients and how those ingredients come to them.

The greatest impact I think we could make is that that we have created a conversation that continues to grow into a big dialogue that continues to grow into this global initiative, where companies are no longer okay to simply produce and to make profit on the back and the labor and the goodwill of our planet because of a self driven sense of awareness.

I want to create an internal shift in their body and their thinking that says, I have to produce food and make food that builds the human body and the body of this planet.

Because if I’m going to live here and my grandkids and my grandkids’ grandkids, to keep going we all have to take care of the spaceship that we call planet Earth.

AFN: What skills do you feel took you from an entrepreneur to now sitting on a couple of boards and helping them steer their companies?

ZA: I think it’s the same kind of skill set that kind of keeps me going, which I think is learning and a drive for curiosity.

Always be curious. Be curious to understand people’s motives, be curious to understand their story, be curious to understand where they came from and what has motivated them to do what they are doing.

It’s such an important thing because I think curiosity is expansive in nature. It continues to push you beyond what you think you know, beyond what you think you’ve experienced. It serves as a navigating point in creating new relationships.

 

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