By Jennifer Crain
Tish Watford had a nasty case of the flu. When a family friend heard about it, she suggested neem tea, referring to a common tree in the Virgin Islands, where Watford lived with her husband and their young son. Neem is in the mahogany family and is said, among other things, to be effective at bringing down a fever, settling stomach upset, and relieving loss of appetite.
Watford had never tried the tea before—she had only lived in St. Thomas for a couple of months—but she was willing to try anything if it made her feel better. Why not take advantage of local advice? She gathered the long, serrated leaves from a tree in her own yard and steeped them in boiling water.
The drink was so bitter it made her flinch. She forced down a mug of it anyway.
The next morning, Watford was up and about, feeling less flu-like than she’d anticipated. Surprised and encouraged, she choked down a second cup, just to be sure.
“When I’ve had the flu in the U.S.,” she says, “it’s knocked me down for like five days.”
The experience, and others like it, got her thinking about food in a new way. In the Virgin Islands, Watford was in contact with people who valued the health benefits of the plants around them.
“It was always living closer to the ground and using foods as medicine,” she remembers. “I was in a community that was more natural…if you were having tummy problems, there were people who could tell you (about something that could help heal you).”
Watford loved the tropical plants and the weather that made them thrive. She smiles remembering that she always wore summer clothes.
But her time living “in the middle of paradise” ended abruptly when her husband, a chef and caterer, fell ill at the age of thirty-three. Two weeks later, he died of still unidentified causes. Her husband was from the islands, but the two and their young son had only lived there as a family for a number of months.
Stunned, Watford and her son moved back to the States in the spring of 2012, to Alabama, where she could be near her college-aged daughter. It was a safe place to absorb the shock and to try and reassemble her life.
Surrounding herself with family, she eventually visited Olympia to help her sister settle in and later decided to make the move herself. In October 2013, she and her son moved to the area.
As she considered what to do next, Watford reflected on the food lessons she learned on the island. She also kept experimenting with nutritional powders and supplements, though she found that some of them tasted pretty awful, like the neem tea. After wrecking her share of smoothies, she started to think about ways to sneak “super foods” into snacks that tasted good. So she experimented with (what else?) chocolate.
If she mixed beetroot into dark chocolate and drizzled it over popcorn, she discovered, no one would know the difference. That’s what happened when she sold her popcorn at a couple of local festivals: people gobbled it up without so much as an eyelid twitch. This was looking like a viable business idea.
Soon she was researching, recipe testing, and brainstorming business names.
Highlighting the stealth appeal of her product for busy, health-conscious parents, particularly women, she settled on a name: Sneaky’s Super Snacks. Now it’s simply Sneaky’s.
Her business started to take shape as she identified her goals.
“Okay, I know this tastes really good,” she would say to herself, “but does it have a function?” She thought there should be something beneficial for the body in every bite.
When Watford first considered packaging her product, the chocolate popcorn turned out to be too labor-intensive to make it worthwhile. So she turned to a favorite combination she learned from a friend on the island: popcorn dusted with nutrient-rich spirulina powder (made from a type of freshwater algae). She came up with her own version of the snack, using all organic and GMO-free ingredients. The final recipe is a gluten-free, vegan combination of nutritional yeast, coconut oil, spirulina (she’s careful with sourcing to be sure it’s free of heavy metals), garlic, onion, paprika, and sea salt over popcorn.
Here was an accessible, lick-you-fingers snack that was manageable enough to produce and package for retail and wholesale. And people really liked it. When she heard a child begging his mom for more than one bag, she knew she had reached a benchmark.
“He was pouting, ‘I want my Sneaky’s!’” Watford recalls. “And I thought, ‘Yes!’”
Watford is an accountant by training, so crunching numbers for a new business didn’t scare her off. But she knew she needed entrepreneurial guidance and help developing a solid business plan. So she sought out a position in Enterprise for Equity’s Business Training Program.
“Enterprise for Equity helped me identify my target audience,” she says. “That, and honing in on the numbers.” Watford is among 24 of the program’s most recent small-business graduates.
She began distributing her product in January at the Olympia Food Co-op. Since then she’s expanded and Sneaky’s popcorn is now available at Little General Food Shop, Farm Fresh Market, and the bookstore at The Evergreen State College, as well. She also sells at the Tumwater Farmers Market.
Watford will launch new packaging in November, replacing the pouch with a re-sealable chip bag. And she has a new product up her sleeve, a corn-free version of her snack made with popped sorghum. As the parent of a child with a long list of food allergies, she understands how careful many people have to be with their food and wants to be flexible and responsive to her customers.
“I want to do the experimenting for you,” she says. “I want to be that company that helps you eat super foods effortlessly.”