Overnight Success: San Diego's Mush Lands Deal on 'Shark Tank'
Co-founder Kat Thomas spills the beans on the experience, and where the overnight oats company is going next
Photo by Matt Robertson
In our cover story in January, I dove deep into the farmers market boom in San Diego. How it’s become a church-replacement therapy of sorts for San Diego. A free, weekly, non-denominational gathering of entire communities. While going booth to booth at the Little Italy market, I came across one called Mush. A couple gals, serving ready-to-eat overnight oats. What are overnight oats? Simple. Instead of cooking oatmeal, you soak old-timey oats (rolled oats) in a liquid (often nut milk), with various flavorings. Put ‘em in the fridge, and the next morning you’ve got a pretty delicious “mush” the consistency of pudding, or porridge.
Mush’s oats were delicious, each of four flavors (blueberry, vanilla bean, apple crisp, and dark cacao) served in six-ounce pods. Six ounces may sound small, but oats are filling. Eaten as a whole meal, I actually didn’t feel the need to finish a single package, and stored the remaining bites for later.
The attendants at the booth were cryptic about something “big” happening very soon. Later that night, their big news was revealed on Shark Tank, where founders Ashley Thompson and Kat Thomas cut a deal with Mark Cuban, granting him 10 percent of their company in exchange for $300,000 investment.
Thompson and Thomas met each other while working in the financial industry and bonded over their love of healthy food. Problem was, they couldn’t find many that were packaged, ready-to-eat, on-the-go options for busy people.
On her drive back to San Diego from LA (she splits her time between the two cities now), I spoke with Kat Thomas about the Shark Tank experience, and their big idea—which, turns out, is much larger than overnight oats.
What are overnight oats?
Oats soaked overnight and hand crafted with coconut milk or almond milk. The idea is to make oatmeal more accessible. Rather than cooking, they’re soaked. It’s raw food. Never heated. Just as easy to digest. More nutrient dense. Grab and go out of the fridge. Pop the top and eat it, like yogurt. When Ashley and I stated we couldn’t find foods in the marketplace that were convenient, healthy, and tasted good. We wanted to bridge that gap between health and convenience that we frequently sacrifice. The goal is to expand into other products, like Mush milk or Mushkins—baby food.
You started two and a half years ago at the farmers markets. Why there?
The biggest thing in launching a consumer product first year is R&D. The farmers market circuit is the easiest way to get into the market and get instant feedback. When the spoon enters the consumer’s mouth, you’re getting feedback. The better you are at reading people, the better R&D you’re going to get.
You use high pressure pasteurization (HPP), instead of heat-based pasteurization. Why?
For us, it’s got to be a health food product. We were adamant about that. With HPP, there’s no need for guar gum, binders, fillers, potassium sorbate, or natural flavors or whatever it may be. Micro organisms can’t survive the pressure. Obviously it costs something. We now say each Mush pod has about two months shelf life. Eight weeks. Before HPP, it was about a week. And it doesn’t affect the flavor. If anything, HPP helped make Mush what it is. We like what the HPP does to the consistency and texture. It contributes to the pudding-like consistency.
Why Shark Tank?
The biggest thing with Shark Tank for us was, “Is it the right fit?” The one thing we came back to is that we’re about this broader vision. It’s one thing we really connected on. Ashley was working in Manhattan and I was working in London. The food over there is genuinely cleaner. When I came back to the US as a health conscious kid, I started reading the ingredients, I didn’t understand why there’s so much stuff in our food. Why is it so hard to launch a clean product? We’re pretty extreme. We draw a line using date as a sweetener. We won’t do go into agave or maltodextrin. But we think that’s where the industry needs to shift.
What kind of shift?
This industry is not an industry of integrity. It lacks innovation. So we saw an opportunity there—a mantra from two women combating America’s love affair with sugar. It goes back to the 1970s where we had Harvard academics say fat is responsible for obesity in America. As a result we saw the fat removed, and as a result the food isn’t as satiating. So companies added sugar to make it taste better. So we got low-fat yogurts that doubled down on the sugar. The flavor was sweeter. It was a massive shift. Ash and I realized that this is the opportunity to raise awareness of what happened in our culture and build a brand around a mission. Rather than just talking about it, we decided to launch a product.
The ultimate goal?
We want to develop more products, and get to the point where you can walk into a store and see any Mush product, and trust that you don’t have to read the ingredients. We’re firm believers that’s the way the industry should be. Eating is an intimate exercise. You only get one body, so you should take care of it. Eat real food. Pay attention to the fillers and the added sugars. We as a society spend so much money on clothes and accessories and cars, but with something as intimate as food we struggle to pay up for quality and integrity. That’s a shift we want to raise awareness of.
What was the Shark Tank experience like?
We were in there for less than an hour. It’s not staged. You practice your pitch. But from the moment they say, “Begin,” it becomes a meeting essentially. To interact with the Sharks and realize they're real people. They genuinely want to work with entrepreneurs who are gritty and hard working and start with the "why."
Why’d you decide to partner with Cuban?
Mark is pretty quiet and asks really good questions. Ashley and I were like, “He gets it.” The biggest moment was Pop Chips. Rohan has had tremendous success in the food industry starting with Vitamin Water and Pop Chips. Rohan was talking about previous successes. Mark was saying “They don’t want to be Pop Chips, they want to change the world.” His mantra was to not focus on the product, but the broader mission and the why. Being a counter culture. Mark got that big picture.
How crazy was the night the episode aired? Was your website flooded with requests?
The reception was incredibly good. So unbelievably humbled. We’d launched e-commerce leading into the airing. We got inundated with a large number of orders. We ran out of our iconic containers. Growing pains. They call it "The Shark Tank Effect" for a reason. We’re shipping the product nationally, and we’re dealing with snow storms. The biggest testament was the thousands of emails that came in. We’re a small company. We don’t have a customer service department. You look at the number of emails on your phone, and you go from 35 to 3,122. And you’re just like, “Oh god, I can’t get the bubble down to zero.” Ashley and I both want to have the bubble at zero. There was no chance to get the bubble to zero. If there are two people who want to interact with the customer, it’s us. It gets to the point where it’s overwhelming.
I hear you make your own almond milk in house. That’s cost-prohibitive. Why not just buy it in bulk?
That’s how you get the nutrients. A lot of the store-bought brands are just glorified water. Let’s say the store-bought almond milk is 30 calories. Almonds are pure fat. So 30 calories of almonds represents 20-25 percent of the serving. Each almond represents about 10-15 calories. So your big glass of almond milk is really just two to three almonds. If you look at what you’re paying for that, you’re really just paying for water, then xantham or guar gum to thicken it up a little bit. That’s a trick to make you think you’re getting a lot of nutrients and almonds in your milk. Really the thickness is just coming from the gum. There are better ones that have come out of late.
We just launched a coconut cold brew flavor. People just love coffee. Anything with coffee, and the coconut aspect of it. Our nut allergy people are incredibly happy. It’s got a touch of sea salt. We’d like to move ahead with Mushkins, which would start kids on healthy foods when they’re young. Ash and I have also talked about a “shmudie,” which would essentially be a protein smoothie. There are a lot of things you can do with making no-added-sugar desserts with dates as sweeteners. We’ve got some tricks up our sleeves. Right now we’re on getting out of this e-commerce, post-Shark Tank hole and scaling properly and taking care of the customer along the way.
You can find Mush at Whole Foods, on Amazon, and other retailers.