Entrepreneurs

These parents created a healthy chip their sick son could eat—now it's a business bringing in $10 million

When Scott and Megan Reamer developed their first recipe for slow-cooked chips made with organic coconut oil, they weren't thinking about creating the snack food empire they have today, one that reached $10 million in revenue last year. Far from it. They were on a mission to help their son, Jackson.

He was suffering from a rare and incurable auto-immune disease, which led the Reamers to spend a decade experimenting with a diet that might ease Jackson's symptoms. Out of that experience grew Jackson's Honest — a family business that now sells the same all-natural potato and tortilla chips that Scott and Megan made for their son in their Colorado kitchen.

Jackson tragically passed away at age 16 from complications of Aicardi–Goutières syndrome in August, just after the the Reamers filmed part of their appearance on ABC show "Shark Tank." Now the business that bears their son's name has become part of the family's driving mission: to share Jackson's story and introduce other families to the health benefits of nutrient-dense snacks.

Scott Reamer and his son Jackson.
Chris Miller
Scott Reamer and his son Jackson.

How Jackson's journey led to an idea

In 2001, Jackson was born a healthy baby like any other. "He was a walking, talking, healthy toddler," Megan Reamer tells CNBC Make It.

But by late 2002, the Reamers could tell something was wrong.

"He slowly started to lose some motor skills over the next three years, where by age 5 he ended up living in a wheelchair," she says. "So it was a very slow regression that looked a lot like multiple sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease."

At one point when Jackson was 3 1/2 years old, he weighed 17 pounds. Despite trips across the country to see specialists and be subject to multitudes of tests like spinal taps, CT scans, MRIs and electroencephalograms, his condition remained a mystery.

It was in the early years of Jackson's disease that Scott and Megan began to focus on their son's diet in order to ease his gastrointestinal symptoms, help him gain some weight and sleep better at night.

"Everything that we gave him — literally every drink, every spoonful of food — we tried to optimize," Scott explains. "We didn't necessarily know what he had, but we knew that at some level with food we could intermediate."

In their Crested Butte, Colo., home, they reverse-engineered an anti-inflammatory, ketogenic diet with high fats and low carbs. They swapped processed oils for natural saturated fats in food for the family, including for their other three children Ella, Olivia and Charlie, now 14, 11 and 8.

One of the things Scott and Megan tried out was making potato chips fried in coconut oil — cooking them at a low temperature for several minutes instead of flash frying to accommodate Jackson's needs.

When Jackson was finally diagnosed in 2015, the Reamers learned that this kind of diet is one of the best treatments for his disease, the Denver Post reports.

Jackson's Honest founders Megan and Scott Reamer with their four children.
Chris Miller
Jackson's Honest founders Megan and Scott Reamer with their four children.

'A nice little business'

Of all the foods the Reamers developed, their homemade potato chips were becoming a favorite not only among the family but with friends who tried them. While it took many iterations (there were lots of soggy chips along the way, Megan admits), the Reamers eventually perfected the recipe.

"I'm sure I wasn't the only one who said, 'Man, you should really sell these," family friend Bryan Boyle tells the Denver Post about the chips. "I know I wasn't the only one piping up."

The Reamers continued to make chips at home, but Megan says she wished it was a product she could buy in a store. When she continued to only see unsaturated fats in the snack aisle, the family decided they would be the ones to sell something different.

Megan and Scott launched Jackson's Honest in 2012, selling chips which have three ingredients: non-gmo potatoes, organic coconut oil and sea salt.

"For us, it became this question of 'Would we regret this if we didn't try to do this?'" Megan says of the venture.

Megan and Scott both have a background with business: before being a full-time mom she worked at consulting firm Accenture and as a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal and he was a macro-economic and quantitative strategist for a financial company. But, building a brand was still daunting.

"When we talked about starting this business, it seemed like an 'ah ha' moment." -Megan Reamer, Founder of Jackson's Honest

They started selling the chips online that September and within three months, Jackson's Honest had sold chips in all 50 states and in eight different countries.

At that point, Scott says he thought, "gosh this could be a really nice little business."

The Reamers went from cutting potatoes with a mandolin in their kitchen at home to working with a small commercial kitchen. They scaled to a manufacturing facility in 2013 as they landed their first retail distribution with Natural Grocers.

By 2014, the company hit $1 million in sales. The business was self-funded by the family until November of that year. In January 2015, they added their first employee and now have a total of seven. Last year, revenue topped $10 million. The brand's potato chips and corn chips can be found in 4,000 retailers and grocery store chains like Whole Foods and Sprouts. A six-pack of 5 oz. bags of purple heirloom potato chips sells on their website for $23.94

Scott quit his day job to dive full-time into the business around June.

Although challenges arose around packaging, production and supply chain (like desperately calling up farmers to get a hold of enough potatoes to meet their growing orders), Scott and Megan say their experience with Jackson made any uncertainty around running a small business pale in comparison.

"Dealing with Jackson's disease, having it be un-diagnosed for 12 years and going all over the country to the Mayo Clinic, Boston Children's [Hospital], Columbia, Stanford — all over the nation to try to find some answer — that made us tough as nails," Scott says.

Throughout the bustling growth, the Reamers remained resolute in their focus: Jackson.

"We felt like we had this story to tell, and it seemed to us that we needed to share it," Megan says. "For years, people told us to write a book, and talk about all of the things we had done for Jackson and with Jackson, and all of the changes we had made to accommodate this disease progression within him, and that never really felt right, like the right thing to do. But when we talked about starting this business, it seemed like an 'ah ha' moment."

Scott explains that they wanted to pass along their discoveries — that old-school, unprocessed fats can be healthy and beneficial — to other people.

"It took us a long time to figure this out, but we felt like it was such hard won information, that we had a duty at some level to share that with other people," he says.

For Megan, her proudest moment in building the business was a trip to the children's hospital in Denver, which now sells Jackson's Honest chips. She went to showcase samples of the chips and introduce people to the brand, unlike a usual visit that entailed a procedure or test for Jackson.

"That for me was very poignant," she says. "I never would have believed 10 years ago, five years ago, when we were still searching for answers about Jackson, that we would shifted this into truly making lemonade out of lemons and spinning it in this really positive direction."

Sharing Jackson's legacy 

The growing business even wrangled a spot on the two-hour season premier of ABC's "Shark Tank," which will air at 8 p.m. Sunday Oct. 1. After the episode was taped, however, Jackson passed away from a complication of his disease on Aug. 13, 2017.

For the Reamers, the mission to spread Jackson's story has been core since the first batch of chips. Now, they are continuing to do so in his memory.

"Never, ever give up." Scott says. It's his advice for others, and it is the attitude he upheld during his family's journey. "At some point, you'll find just by luck some solution, a partial solution. Never giving up will get you through any human problem."

When it comes to Jackson's Honest, giving up isn't an option.

"This company, this mission, has really become Jackson's legacy, and we want to honor that, and support it and continue to show our passion and determination and inspiration around Jackson himself," Megan says.

Scott agrees, "Jackson's Honest the company begins and ends with Jackson Reamer."

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