Todd Harrison Interviews Scott Reamer: The Story of Jackson's Honest Potato Chips
Chora Capital's Scott Reamer explains how his Wall Street experience helped him discover a dietary strategy that eased his son's mysterious illness, and how that solution later sparked a family business.
SR: That’s exactly right. That is precisely right. And actually, there’s some incredible parallels in the financial industry and the medical industry, too, insofar as that, what we found is that -- I guess we were naïve in going into the process. We said, these experts, they spent years, decades in some cases, writing research, coming up with theories, testing them, etc. And hey, with the body of the knowledge and medicine, someone has got to be able to figure this out. But lo and behold, 10 years later, and no one still is able to figure it out.
So it was this man-behind-the-curtain kind of moment for the first few years, or several moments for the first few years, where basically doctors and specialists, they look inside the normal bell curve. If it’s not within two standard deviations of what they normally see, they just throw up their arms, the vast majority of them, 95% of them. And this is true of investors, academics, politicians, economists. If it’s not within their purview of what they normally see, very, very few of them will go out onto the edge of the distribution and try to figure out what causes that event, what causes in this case some extraordinarily rare constellation of symptoms, for instance, and what that constellation of symptoms might actually point to.
To me, the most incredible thing, both for you and for your readers, is the parallels between the finance business and the medical business at large. And again, to reinforce the point, being somewhat a contrarian from a finance standpoint helped immensely to find, in this case, the diet that helped Jackson. Because everything was on the table. We didn’t have any sacred cows. There were no preconceived notions. All we cared about was, at the time, saving his life, and then later on optimizing his happiness. And we did that without coming to it with a prescribed set of recipes. What you see now and you’ve seen in the last few years since the credit cycle blew up in 2008 is just a series of prescribed recipes being applied again and again and again, without really any sense of whether they’re going to work, but let’s try it anyway.
TH: That’s the "drugs that mask the symptoms versus the medicine that cures the disease" analogy that continues to play through, and has in turn, shaped the mindset for so many. I have to ask, because I know now, as a father of three, when one of my kids is sick, as a parent all you want to do is just assume that pain and make it go away. How has the rest of your family -- it could not have been easy for your wife and three other children. How have they gotten through this as they have?
SR: In hindsight, much healthier than I originally worried. Kids themselves, of course, are enormously flexible and resilient to all sorts of challenges. Kids, not just physically but also mentally and emotionally, are incredibly resilient. But for my wife and me it was obviously very, very difficult. Uncertainty generally is very difficult for human beings to handle. Human beings are entropy-reducing animals, and any amount of uncertainty -- and obviously, death is the ultimate uncertainty --
TH: Or the ultimate certainty, depending.
SR: Yeah, good point. Facing that with any sort of regularity, it’s like a car accident every day. It was incredibly difficult. And the physical and emotional tolls were unmeasurable, really, and stay with us to this day. But having said that, we look back on it and see a lot of silver linings, and those silver linings are, we all eat this way now, and that’s fantastic. And our appreciation for our friends and our family and our lives and what we do have, is just unbounded now.
So it’s one of those, look-into-the-chasm kind of things. When you’re on the other side, gosh, it feels incredible. The whole new perspective that it gives you is really a wonderful gift. But while you’re in it, there’s clearly nothing more powerful, and we were in it for years, dealing with that uncertainty and dealing with the likelihood of his passing.
There are two parts of it. The worst part you go through that you don’t want to go through and you don’t want anybody else to experience that, and then in this case, the positive outcome on the other side where we were able to save his life and intermediate whatever the disease process is. And we look back and say, gosh, we’re lucky, and look at our lives now. We’re blessed to have three more kids, with a great family and friends, good jobs and things like that, and a lot of fun things happening.
TH: It’s the old adage, in order to get through it you had to go through it.
SR: That’s exactly right.
TH: So this is an incredible story. For those who don’t know, Scott and I have known each other for, as you said, well over a decade. He contributed to Minyanville in the early days. We’re talking back in 2002, 2003; I think that’s when Jackson’s illness first started to demonstrate itself. And it’s been inspirational to watch you as a father and as a person, knowing you all these years as I have. We recently reconnected and you shared with me the story about Jackson’s Honest Potato Chips. Can you talk about that a little bit, please? It’s pretty impressive.
SR: We adopted this sort of nutrition, which ultimately became the paleo diet, in effect. It’s heavy on proteins -- grass-fed meats and things like this, as well as traditional fats. Not polyunsaturated vegetable oils that are made in some industrialized manufacturing process in the Midwest, but really cold-pressed olive oil and lard and tallow, traditional fats that your grandmother and your grandmother’s grandmother used to use all the time, before these manufactured -- what are called "franken fats" -- became ubiquitous and in pretty much every packaged food that you could possibly buy.
Well, we went back to all of those fats, and using them in our own diets, of course, for Jackson as well as for ourselves. And because we had kids, we started about six years ago or so, frying potato chips in real fat. So we’ve used duck lard, we’ve used pork lard, coconut oil, of course is a great fat. Well, the easiest one to prepare and use a lot was coconut oil, so we started making them for our other kids and they absolutely loved them.
We started to make enough for picnics in the summer or dinner parties and things, and increasingly, people said, “These are the best potato chips we’ve ever had.” This started around 2006, 2007, or so. “You really should sell these.” And we thought, gosh, people are just being nice. They’re our friends. We just gave them something free. Of course they’re going to say, “It was great. You should sell it.”
But they said it for years and years, and about 2011 we thought, gosh, a lot of people are saying this. Coconut as an ingredient in foods, whether its coconut water or coconut meal in sports bars or whatever, started to become this trendy thing. I wonder what it would take, actually, to actually put these in a bag and determine if our friends were just being nice, or if, in fact, they were being genuine when they said we should sell them.
So we went through that process. I should say my wife went through this process. I was merely her cheap labor on the weekends. But she went through this process and eventually got them in a bag, sold them to a couple of local health food stores, and they flew off the shelves. People couldn’t get enough. She opened up the website for ordering in September of 2012, and in the first few months she got orders from 40 US states, eight different countries.
That, to me, was the point where I thought, gosh, she could really do something with this, simply because the potato chip is the most ubiquitous snack food on the planet. I would guess that 80% of the entire world’s population is not greater than a mile away from a bag of potato chips that they could purchase themselves, given how far-flung they are across the world. But that people were ordering them from Australia and New Zealand and Belgium and England and all these other countries --
TH: And you recently had a cameo at the Academy Awards, I understand.
SR: Yeah, so that built into this idea. We had a friend who’s in the entertainment business in LA, which is to say the product placement business in LA. She was very nice. Took [my wife] Megan under her wing and said, “This is a great story. I’d love to help.” And she, in effect, submitted the product to the Academy Awards, which have this product selection committee, in effect. You can’t pay to have your products placed inside the green rooms or the dressing rooms back stage or what have you, but the Academy actually determines what products they place there based on some brands that they want to be associated with, the quality of the product, the interestingness of the story, etc. She had heard this past Wednesday that they were chosen to be in the green rooms, in the dressing rooms, the executive suites and the production areas. So she was incredibly excited, obviously. And it’s a real example of not only serendipity, because she obviously didn’t expect it and wasn’t banking on it at all, but that there was also a "lemons into lemonade" kind of thing here. That diet helped save Jackson’s life. It appears as if there’s some demand in the world for healthy fats, and she just happened to offer the right product at the right time.
So it’s really this incredible synergy between a great story, Jackson’s story; an interesting trend insofar as people are becoming much more aware and educated about what healthy fats are versus unhealthy fats; and things like the Academy Awards selection. It’s been an incredibly fun thing for her. And really as much as it’s been a ton of work for her, I think, as I look at it from an observational standpoint as a husband and a father, I think it’s been incredibly healing, too, to turn lemons into lemonade and share Jackson’s story with other mothers and other folks who have their own challenges in life. Whether they’re serious or semi-serious, everyone faces certain challenges.
It’s been really cathartic for her, I think, to go through this process. And obviously, it’s been great to have positive feedback, but also just to turn the story into something incredibly positive is a basic and fundamental human need.
Todd Harrison is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Minyanville. Prior to his current role, Mr. Harrison was President and head trader at a $400 million dollar New York-based hedge fund. Todd welcomes your comments and/or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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