Zack Gazzaniga @ Zack's Mighty
Mighty Tortilla Chips Powered By Regenerative Corn
Zack Gazzaniga is the Founder of Zack's Mighty. The brand is supporting regenerative agriculture with its tortilla chip products made with certified regenerative corn. Launched in 2020, the company has three SKUs of organic tortilla chips (sea salt, lime, nacho) and recently launched two rolled tortilla chip SKUs (chile lime and firey nacho). Zack’s mission is to create delicious tortilla chips that stand up to the biggest dips. Their products are sold nationally in Whole Foods, Natural Grocers, Publix, and other natural food retailers, with their first rotation in Costco starting in January 2024.
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When you get a degree in economics, the presumption is you’ll end up in finance. Zach, however, always wanted to be “hands-on” in his work and took a more tactile path. His first job took him to San Francisco to work with an organic granola company, shortly followed by a return East to become the first employee leading sales and operations for Sir Kensington's – a startup ketchup company.
“I fell in love with the food industry…It was such a cool experience to see the full lifecycle of a product from thinking of what to launch, sourcing the raw materials, finding a co-packer or getting it made, getting it sent to a warehouse, and then going in to meet with a buyer to pitch a promo plan. I didn't really realize it at the time, but it was setting me up well to start my own company because I knew how to create and launch products” – Zach
Stick with What You Love
Within a few years, Sir Kensington's was bought by Unilever, and Zach was ready to return to scaling a startup. This time he wanted to be a Founder, but he wasn't sure what business to launch. After a year of exploring different product ideas, dabbling in adaptogens, and digging into reams of data, he kept coming back to what he loved – tortilla chips.
Unlike condiments, which is a small category (especially in the natural channel), snack food is huge (the number 10 tortilla chip outsells the number 1 ketchup brand). The challenge was figuring out how to stand out. For Zach, that meant creating a chip that offered flavor and strength.
Building a Better Chip Starts with Better Corn
In his quest for a better chip, Zach fell down the rabbit hole of corn’s 10,000-year history. His search centered on a particularly flavorful corn that migrated to the present-day Northeast United States from Mexico many years ago. This variety eventually fell out of favor with farmers in the Northeast because its yield couldn’t match that of modern hybrid dent corn that was being grown in the Midwest. As flint corn died off in the U.S. (except for a few underground “corn resistance” farmers in New England), it started taking off across Southern Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Settling on flint corn as the answer to better flavor, he hired a chef from Union Square Hospitality who had studied in Oaxaca, Mexico, to make a small batch of chips and confirm his hypothesis. The “cornier” flavor blew him away – reminiscent of how an heirloom tomato bursts with real tomato flavor at the height of summer.
With flint corn seeds and grain in short supply domestically, Zach went seed hunting in Piedmont, Italy. He purchased 2,000 lbs of certified seed-grade flint corn from an Italian biodynamic certifier and seed supplier and partnered with two organic farmers in NY state. This initial purchase was enough to get him started growing acres in the U.S. and capturing seed from each subsequent crop (unlike with modern hybrid corn, farmers can harvest seeds from open-pollinated heirloom crops).
Regenerative by Accident
Zach always knew he wanted to stay close to the farm for his sourcing and avoid buying ingredients from a broker. And while organic and non-GMO were natural fits with his first partner organic farms, it wasn’t until a buyer at Whole Foods asked him if his tortilla chips were regenerative that he heard of the term.
“I lucked out in the sense that these are family organic farms, but they also happened to be big on the regenerative movement. So they educated me on what regenerative means, why it's important, why it's valuable. They taught me about the carbon cycle and the need for organic matter in the soil. I was hooked because it makes so much sense.” – Zach
Producing their corn regeneratively was an immediate “yes” – but marketing with that claim was a longer play.
“I very much want to support the regenerative movement and regenerative agriculture, but I don't want to ever trick myself into thinking that's the reason why someone will or should buy my product. My product needs to taste good. It needs to perform in guacamole, it needs to be priced appropriately. It’s a trick sometimes if you think regenerative is the thing. You might let these other things slip and it's hard to put the burden on the consumer to say, well, sacrifice these three things to get (regenerative). The standard is we all have to incorporate regenerative into excellent products.” – Zach
As the brand focused on delivering flavor and strength, Zach began exploring regenerative certification.
“I felt very strongly from the beginning that I didn’t want to make any regenerative claim until we had a third-party certifying body. There’s a murkiness there around folks just making the claim without going through the process of certifying or having auditors come and inspect… so we held off on making any regenerative claims until we got a certification because that's fairest to the consumer.” – Zach
After hiring independent consultants to create their regenerative standards internally, Zach learned that A Greener World™ (AGW) was launching a pilot regenerative certification program. His farmers were eager to join the pilot because they wanted to be part of the conversation around what regenerative truly meant. Today, the brand proudly shares its Certified Regenerative® by AGW on its packaging.
When it comes to getting on store shelves, Zach emphasized his appreciation for the support many retailers have for regenerative and how regenerative is opening doors. But ultimately, he says, your product has to sell.
“In a competitive category, if a buyer is looking at a bunch of items and it’s kind of even, the brand that’s regenerative very much will win out and that will get you on the shelf. But then you’ve got to sell because if you don't sell, these regenerative commitments might not be as strong at the next review.” – Zach
He is particularly grateful to Whole Foods, whose buyer and head of grocery gave them time to get on track following a rough launch during COVID in 2020.
Sometimes You Have to Bend the Rules
As the brand has grown and expanded, Zach shared the challenges many brands feel when trying to be innovative and explore new categories while also adhering to their principles. In the case of Zach’s Mighty, that meant forgoing organic and regenerative in the near term to maintain a palatable price point for their new rolled tortilla chips.
“Being a regenerative brand first and then doing a non-regenerative item triggers a lot of questions. It’s interesting because there's a lot of non-regenerative brands that launch a single regenerative item and then that's like a high five. So should we be criticized for betraying our values by launching a non-regenerative item? I guess the consumer will let us know.” – Zach
50% Market Share for Regen
For Zach, getting regenerative to true scale will take a progress-over-perfection mentality (the same approach they’ve taken with their rolled chips which they hope to make regenerative someday). He believes government policy and subsidies can certainly give farmers the incentives they need to change practices, and big food companies can take the lead on buying regenerative.
When asked whether the onus is on retailers to take the lead, however, Zach pushed back.
“I think a lot of buyers are doing a really good job right now. Like, what more can you ask from a retailer than shelf space? I mean, it's so hard to get a meeting. It's so hard to get a yes. If they put you on the shelf, their job's done. It’s your responsibility to sell it, not the retailers. Over the next few years, regenerative is not gonna be why people buy my product. Regenerative is a standard that you have as part of what you sell, but not necessarily the reason.” – Zach
You can check out the full episode with Zack Gazzaniga @ Zack's Mighty HERE.
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