Childhood food allergies are increasingly common, and the effects can range from mildly annoying to downright deadly. Food brand Ready. Set. Food!, which successfully presented on the invention pitch competition show Shark Tank, seeks to head such harmful allergies off at the pass. The company (which provides mix-ins, oatmeals, and recently introduced bars) offers products that include all the major allergens, with the goal of helping children develop a tolerance for those ingredients, rather than become allergic to them down the road.

Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery reached out and spoke to Daniel Zakowski, CEO and co-founder of Ready. Set. Food! to learn more about the allergen-avoidance products work, and how the company’s experience on Shark Tank went.

Jenni Spinner: Could you please share an overview of food allergies and how they’ve become a concern for consumers—especially the smallest ones?

Daniel Zakowski: The prevalence of food allergies has exploded in recent decades; from 1997 to 2011, rates went up by 50%. In the US, about 8% of all children have at least one food allergy. Previously, pediatricians used to recommend that parents delay the introduction of common allergens like milk, eggs, and peanuts. But, there have now been many clinical trials (e.g., LEAP, EAT, and PETIT) that show if you start feeding these allergens when your baby is 4 to 6 months old and then keep them eating the foods regularly, we can prevent 80% of food allergies. That is why all of the major medical societies like the American Academy of Pediatricians, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, and the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology recommend the introduction of allergens for all babies by four to six months of age.

JS: How have food producers responded to the issue?

DZ: We’ve seen the baby food category - and many adult categories as well - explode with allergen-free foods, which is great for kids with food allergies, but it actually exacerbates today’s food allergy epidemic by making it harder to keep allergens in kids’ diets. We know that early introduction is only part of the solution to preventing food allergies; the other part is maintaining exposure to allergens on an ongoing basis. Removing the most common food allergens from packaged foods and snacks makes it harder for parents to easily maintain that exposure in the foods they are already buying for their families.

JS: Then, let’s talk about Ready. Set. Food!’s approach—what products have you launched, and how do they tackle the issue of food allergies?

DZ: This shift away from allergen-inclusive baby foods is why we have recently launched our own versions of some of the most popular items in the baby and toddler food aisle. Our Organic Oat & Fruit Bars (12+ months) are a first-of-its-kind toddler snack that makes it easy to maintain exposure to the eight most common food allergens. In addition to being a delicious snack, these bars also promote diet diversity and help parents feel good about what they are providing to their kids for a snack. Similarly, our first-of-its-kind Organic Baby Oatmeal (6+ months) has the nine most common food allergens already mixed inside for a convenient, ready-in-seconds meal that’s also high in protein.

JS: Please share the story of Ready. Set. Food! and how it got started—I’m sure many parents reading can sympathize with their frustrations dealing with food allergies.

DZ: Ready. Set. Food! was born after co-founder Dr. Andy Leitner’s son Abe developed a number of severe food allergies. As a doctor, Andy knew that he should be feeding Abe common food allergens early and often, but Abe just wasn’t ready for solid foods yet. By the time he was ready, it was already too late. Andy teamed up with Chief Allergist Dr. Katie Marks-Cogan and me to develop a way to deliver gentle, evidence-based doses of peanut, egg, and milk to babies right in the bottle so that no other families would miss the crucial early allergy introduction window.

Since our patented Mix-In system was developed, we’ve expanded our product offerings to include Organic Baby Oatmeal and Organic Oat & Fruit bars, giving parents flexible solutions for feeding allergens to their babies no matter where they are on their feeding journey.

JS: Could you please talk about your experience presenting on Shark Tank? Do you have any lessons for other food producers looking to appear and tell their stories to the sharks?

DZ: Shark Tank was an amazing experience for Ready. Set. Food, both because we got the opportunity to tell our story to a national audience and also because we got the opportunity to partner with Mark Cuban, who cares so passionately about preventing babies from getting food allergies. I would definitely encourage other entrepreneurs to look at applying for Shark Tank, and there are a few lessons they should consider.

I think the keys to success on Shark Tank (other than having a good business) are:

  1. Know your business, category, and goals inside and out in order to be ready for Q&A because they expect you to be an expert and also to not fold under pressure
  2. Don’t just present your company as a business, but make sure you tell your personal story (as with any VC pitch)
  3. Remember that while they will analyze you like a VC it’s also really important to be entertaining enough that they want to put you on TV.

JS: What’s next for the company—new products in the works, expanding to new retail outlets, etc.?

DZ: 2023 is going to be a major year for Ready. Set. Food! We have massive retail expansion plans and will be available in over 8,000 retail doors by the end of the year. We’re also working hard to develop some tasty additional new flavors and products for babies 6 months and up to give parents even more options for safely and easily introducing and maintaining allergens in their little one’s diets. Plus, we’ve got an exciting licensing partnership launching soon. Stay tuned! We’re also continuing to provide educational resources to parents through partnerships with health systems, with a goal of educating 1 million parents annually by early next year. We’re also in discussion with Medicaid plans to help make sure all families can have access to early allergen introduction.

Related: Shark Tank's Ready.Set.Food! introduces allergen-inclusive organic bars