Before One Spark 2014, Mark Patterson already had an investor backing his newly launched healthy ice cream company.
After handing out 11,000 sample cups, though, he also had a lot more confidence.
“We got tons of positive feedback. It was incredible. After that, we knew we were onto something,” said Patterson, company president and founder.
Naturally Smart Foods, which today sells in 40 stores in Jacksonville and Gainesville, announced it will begin shipments to Bahrain in the Middle East this month.
The export deal is expected to add between $10,000 and $40,000 to company revenue this year and $40,000 to $100,000 next year.
It’s a success that reflects on Patterson, of course, but also on business incubation in Northeast Florida.
In his journey, Patterson relied on the University of North Florida’s Small Business Development Center, Enterprise Florida, the U.S. Commercial Service and One Spark.
Naturally Smart isn’t technically ice cream — it doesn’t have enough butter fat to qualify. Instead, it’s a protein-enriched frozen dessert that tastes as good as ice cream, Patterson said.
“You can call it ice cream. I can’t,” Patterson said.
Found on grocery shelves somewhere between Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s, Naturally Smart has half the sugar, a third of the fat and up to three times the protein of typical ice cream.
The product began in 2013 when Patterson left a 20-year restaurant industry career with the intention of starting some kind of food-processing company. At the same time, his wife was having trouble finding high-protein foods as part of a true vegetarian diet.
They tried options on the market, but believed they could do better. They created a new frozen dessert, at first from a mix. Eventually, they hired a food scientist to perfect the formula.
Today, Patterson’s wife is a fan of vanilla Naturally Smart.
In the beginning, Patterson thought his target market would be athletes.
Instead, the high-protein frozen treat gained a wider audience — active-lifestyle consumers, parents looking for healthier treats for their children, and elderly people needing more protein in their diets.
To develop the business side of Naturally Smart, Patterson turned to Jacksonville’s incubator community.
He learned to write a business plan at UNF’s Small Business Development Center. When he attended its small business awards show, a man approached him afterward and said, “I’m here to see you.”
The man became an angel investor.
One Spark 2014 gave Patterson a firsthand look at how thousands of consumers felt about his frozen dessert. And though he didn’t get funding through that venue, venture capital was watching there, too. Three investors pulled Patterson into meetings during the festival to discuss his idea.
The product is carried by Winn-Dixie, Whole Foods, Earth Fare, Lucky’s Market and Hitchcock’s Markets.
International connections, interestingly, have come mostly through LinkedIn.
“I constantly get contacted by people who are just finding me online,” Patterson said.
In the case of Bahrain, Naturally Smart was aided by the fact the U.S. has a free trade agreement with the country, which means goods can travel more freely between them.
Also, the rest of the world is apparently as interested as America in “better-for-you” foods. Patterson said U.S. products are in demand worldwide, because U.S. regulations on food are so strict.
Naturally Smart is an example of the kind of company One Spark was created to support, said Peter Rummell, board chairman of the crowdfunding festival.
“I am so proud to watch Mark and his company continue to become more successful,” Rummell said. “He’s putting Jacksonville on the map for folks around the world.”