From Space Station Engineer to health food entrepreneur.
What a long strange trip it's been.

Meet Pure Tradition's Hard Working Health Nut Founder
Steve Tinsky - B. Sc. E.E., CHFS
Founder - Pure Traditions
Q. Hi Steve, I understand you previously worked as some kind of a rocket scientist. How did you go from doing that to establishing and running a health food brand?

A. Hah! Well, there is a certain amount of truth to the rocket scientist background, but I’ll get into that a little later. I do like to joke that being a food brand isn’t exactly rocket science, but if it were, “I’ve got that covered.” You know the typical founder story for a health foods business revolves around that person or a loved one developing one or several major health issues. And after getting no relief via the allopathic treatment route, their issues are resolved with time through a major change in diet and lifestyle, which inspires them to start a food brand. But my path was a lot different. I didn’t come to it through any personal health crisis.

Q. I see. So, what was your motivation?

A. It goes way back. You see, my mother always had a strong interest in health, and I recall in my teens I would check out her “Prevention Magazine” issues lying around the house. They seemed to feature supplements a bit more than diet, but regardless I found the idea of a preventive health lifestyle interesting. A few years after finishing college my mom sent me the book “Medical Makeover: Kick all your bad health habits for good - in 8 weeks or less.” Each week had one bad habit to kick, but fortunately I didn’t have all 8 of them! So, this is what really got me started, and I still have this book on my shelf and fond memories attached to it - thanks Mom!

At some point not too long after implementing the program in the book, I become interested in vegetarianism for health and started down that path. This led to going vegan and then discovering a lifestyle known as “Natural Hygiene” which I found through the “Fit For Life” book series. This really opened my eyes to the idea of how we should be eating and living based on our evolved biology and how far we have strayed from that in as little as the past 100 years, since the widespread introduction of industrial foods. I went on a mostly raw food diet that at times was almost all fruit as well during the hot Florida summers. The American Natural Hygiene Society, which was headquartered in Tampa where I also lived, sponsored a lot of social and educational gatherings. This helped make you feel being part of a community which can be really critical when you are living so far outside the mainstream. They even featured me in their magazine one issue, "Computer Nature Boy" LOL.
Fast forward to 2010. I had just moved to Portland, Oregon after living overseas for 8 years, having strayed a lot from my Natural Hygiene days. I felt like I needed to eat healthier, and tried adding a lot of raw foods. But it was winter, wet and cold, and it just didn’t feel satisfying. At the same time, the term “Paleo Diet” kept bubbling up on my radar which led me to do some research. After reading up, I found that it made a heck of a lot of sense, so practically overnight I started a very strict paleo diet to see what would happen. In just 2 weeks I was really impressed by the changes I could see and feel. I lost some excess fat, gained muscle tone, and was finding that I had increased my gym work out weight settings on many exercises by 50% or more! These were numbers that had been at a plateau for quite some time. So, I fully embraced the paleo diet and thrived, and not long after realized there was a big need for a grocery where you could do one stop shopping with reasonable or free shipping to find products that meet the clean ingredient rules of paleo. This quickly led to launching the first all paleo store online, Wild Mountain Paleo Market (WMP) in September 2012.
Q. Do you use Paleo as your general ingredient checklist?

A. That’s correct. While we have been focusing on low carb foods that meet Keto, the core foundation is that everything meets the health profile of paleo. There’s a lot of keto products out now, and most of them are filled with junk and have very questionable ingredients like alcohol sugars. We want keto foods that are also healthy, and while that might make them more expensive, that’s ok as we are only interested in producing healthy foods, and we know our audience wants that as well.

Q. How did you decide on ingredient standards?

A. What’s interesting is that when we started WMP in 2012, there were no 3rd party certifications or standards such as The Paleo Foundation. So, I had to figure out an acceptable ingredient list. At that point, I had read four major paleo books. The best one was written by Nora Gedgaudas, who also lived in Portland. I went and visited her at her practice and had some blood tests done to check for food sensitivities. It turned out that I had several, including dairy and gluten even though I didn’t suffer symptoms. So, I was thankful to know that, and I asked Nora if I could hire her as a consultant to help with my ingredient choices. Thankfully she agreed. This led to us establishing the WMP ingredient policy which is published on our website and still guides us in all of our decisions on which products are acceptable for other brands, as well as what we will allow in our own Pure Traditions branded products. Nora has become a dear friend, and she’s the first person I reach out to whenever I have a question about some newfangled ingredient that hits the market. She is always keeping up on the latest research, and I highly recommend any health seeker to check out her books and other information programs she offers through her website, Primal Body Primal Mind. Nora also teaches a number of online programs for laypersons and additionally a certification program for professionals/practitioners at her other website, Primal Courses. She also happens to be the world's leading authority on Keto, having promoted it since 2000 and lived the lifestyle for over 20 years, and published an amazing book on the subject called “Primal Fat Burner”.

Q. So you basically relied on just your past knowledge as well as worked with Nora to guide you?

A. Actually before we opened the store, I signed up to become a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP), which is fantastic program administered by the Nutritional Therapy Association (NTA). The curriculum was the closest thing I've seen to an ancestral health approach, with elements of Paleo as well as Weston A. Price and science backed. The problem was that once the work got going on building the online store, I quickly realized I wouldn't have a year to devote to it. So I put that on pause and spent some time to become a Certified Healing Foods Specialist (CHFS), which was a program run by one of the staff educators from NTA, Caroline Barringer. One of the big takeaways I got from that was the importance of our microbiome health, and the role fermented foods play in supporting that. It's the reason there is such a wide choice of organic fermented foods on WMP. These products are tricky to deal with, but we feel it's a critical part of our mission to provide them. Sadly I never got the chance to study to become an NTP, but I've worked with the NTA at many of their annual gatherings which were local and provided a sort of "Paleo 7-11" convenience store right inside the event which made a lot of folks very happy. Looking back I feel like I've gotten a hand's on education about how the food industry really works in this country and perhaps navigating that slippery slope has allowed me to make a bigger contribution to the world than had I become an NTP.
Q. Did you have any plans at that point to have your own food brand?

A. Yes and No. I defined the mission of Wild Mountain Paleo to “provide the healthiest foods possible to people wherever they are”. That was the beauty of selling online and shipping to people anywhere. A large number of people live in rural areas without a store such as Whole Foods within 250 miles. So, I really felt like we were providing an important service for these people, as well as supporting small brands that were just getting going that didn’t fit the typical distributor to grocery model. We were able to get incredibly healthy products that were not available in most stores directly to our customers. So, although before we launched I did have some thoughts on having our own in-house brand, I really wanted to get as many high quality products into our catalog as fast as possible and make them available to everyone. Having focused on being a brand would not have allowed that to happen - that’s a whole other ballgame.

Q. So was the Pure Traditions brand your next step?

A. Actually, the next venture after having established the WMP online store was to become a paleo distributor. At one point we had 60 brands under our umbrella in order to make it a lot easier for retail stores to buy these great brands in one place, since most of them were not in any major distributors. That was established in 2014 and is still running today as Wild Mountain Wholesale. Our biggest customer is a great chain that shares a lot of our philosophy and standards - Natural Grocers. We also work with small stores, cafes, subscription boxes and even sell directly to health practitioners.
Q. So when and just how did Pure Traditions come about?

A. In 2015 a very serendipitous situation presented itself. We had been selling a locally based brand for over 2 years on WMP, which included instant hot cereals, pancake and pizza crust mix, and also a unique beef snack stick with 35% added organ meat (a product inspired by one of our staff members). After finding out that this brand needed to change their name due to a trademark issue, I suggested to the owners that perhaps it would be a good move if we created our own brand and placed these items under it, and that they focus on being a manufacturer. It made a lot of sense because they weren’t that interested in doing all the legwork required to market a brand and try to get into stores, etc. We had been selling their line exclusively anyway, and we were already doing a lot of this kind of business. So, I came up with the name “Pure Traditions,” designed a logo and printed bag concept, and off we went! We were fortunate to be able to start out immediately with 6 great products with a proven track record. With time we started to add more products, such as an AIP (Auto Immune Protocol) Instant Farina. By 2017 we were able to create a temporary small commercial kitchen space in our warehouse, and that’s when we started to import bulk pili nuts and created all of our sprouted and flavored pili nuts in-house.
Q. I didn’t realize the brand has been around so long, why did you wait until 2021 to launch the brand store?

A. There were definitely plans but since the brand was already an important part of the WMP store, it wasn’t a pressing issue. Plus opening a brick and mortar grocery in Portland became a new focus at that time.

Q. Wait a second. You actually have a brick and mortar grocery as well?

A. Correction, “we had one,” during 2016, for one year. It's a bit ironic since all the major grocery chains have invested heavily in online versions, and of course we did it the other way around! What has happened time and time again in our history is that there’s the plan, and then an unexpected opportunity just sort of drops into our lap. I tend to go with my gut when something interesting comes along as a strategic partnership that can help expand and compliment our mission, even if it does throw off the current plans. So in this instance we were invited by Dick’s Primal Burger to set up a very small grocery inside an unused part of their restaurant. They featured grass-fed burgers as well as a very paleo friendly menu, so it was a pretty good fit and about as easy of a situation to start a retail store as possible.

Not all of these ideas have worked out in the long run, and it's reasonable to assume that had we just focused on building one thing up at at time we might have had more success sooner. But life is about the journey and I have a hard time saying "no" to interesting ideas. And besides, this is a really, really tough industry. We almost didn't make it several times. I'm quite sure the reason we survived is because I had many different things going at once, and if one area did really badly it was not enough to take down the whole operation. We are a tiny company, currently less than 5 employees. I guess all of the computer automation I've built and implemented helps with that, plus a ton of hours I still put in. We really rely on a lot of word of mouth and repeat customers, so if you like what we're doing, please spread the word!
Q. What made you decide to eventually close the store?

A. As it turned out, we were only doing a little better than break even and it was using up too much of our resources to try to run a satellite operation many miles away from our warehouse. There was a lot of wasted time when nobody was in there. I think the location and that fact that it was not our overall business hurt the turnout. But we learned a lot, and after that I felt that with the next warehouse move it would be ideal if there was the ability to have a retail store under the same roof. That was not possible when we moved in 2018, but with our recent move (March 2021) and construction of a commercial kitchen, we are going to launch a small grocery store in the front that will also have a bar with kombucha on tap, coffees with added adaptogens or MCT Oil, etc. We hope to also make things on site such as bone broth that we can serve to people right in the space or for take away.
Q. So it sounds like you make products in-house as well as outsource to co-packers?

That’s right. There are some brands that never touch any of their products until completed, and some that make it all themselves. We like the flexibility of being able to do both, to prototype and produce lower volume foods in our own commercial kitchen, but still utilize a third party when it makes sense due to high volume or excessive investment in equipment. Take for example a product like our new coconut noodles, which requires highly specialized equipment and years of experience. That really needs to be done by an outside manufacturer and in a location close to where the coconuts are actually grown to keep the cost reasonable as well as being much more environmentally friendly. Smoked meat snack sticks or jerky is another example. But as much as possible we want to produce in our own facility. We have many products planned to release over the next 12 months, and the vast majority of those will be produced and/or packaged in our space.

Q. That sounds exciting. And congratulations on the new kitchen space.

A. Thanks, it was a lot of work and investment. The biggest expense was the purchase and installation of a 15’ commercial hood. While we’re not currently preparing any food products under it, the reason we put that in was to create a space where other vendors could come in and work at reasonble rates in a friendly environment. So besides our warehousing/fulfillment and own food production, we have other companies that share the space to make their own quality products. It’s very rewarding as it builds community and the new retail store will only add to that end.
Q. Ok, so what’s the deal with the “rocket science” story?

A. So it’s a little bit of an exaggeration for fun. I graduated from college with a degree in Electrical Engineering. My first job was with a company that made circuit breakers and panels but it was in technical sales, and part of the job was taking out distribution store managers and drinking lots of alcohol with them. Needless to say, that only lasted a year, and thankfully I later landed a job with Honeywell in Clearwater, FL. I worked in the electrical components department and was assigned to the Space Station program. So, I did work with all of the designers helping them to use approved components and developing custom-built part procurement specs as needed. I didn’t actually calculate navigation trajectories for the Space Station, however with my training I could easily have stepped in if I had gotten the call! I worked there for 8 years and then left to become an independent contractor.

Q. Got it. So, what did you do for all those years between Honeywell and before working in the health food industry?

A. Part of my exit strategy from Honeywell was to learn a new skill that would allow me to work independently. I chose to learn to program relational databases, having had a lot of experience as a user with the 4th Dimension database software. So I did that for many years. One business node I created back in 1997, at the dawn of the Internet, was converting mail order catalogs into online stores, what we now call “shopping cart” platforms, such as Shopify, Big Commerce, etc. I had a T-1 line in my house which was paid for by a customer. This was a big deal, it was 1.5 Mbs compared to 32K dial up modems. By today’s standards it’s slow as molasses, but at the time that was a lot. The online store business started to take off and if I had stuck with it, I probably would have gotten very rich. But shortly after establishing it, all the browser wars started, and you had to make all your web code compatible with five different web browsers, which was really a pain. And things would change every time one of the browsers did an upgrade, and suddenly something that worked great was broken. I also found that with time I was doing more and more people management and less coding (the part I really enjoyed), so I decided to get out of it and focus on other areas until the change to the food business in 2012. But this background turned out to be incredibly handy when I decided to launch my own store. Rather than going with some off the shelf shopping cart program, I decided to create my own system from scratch which allowed handling some very tricky product offers and many other advantages. The nice thing is that by then all the browsers were pretty much standardized, and there were lots of innovations such as JavaScript for browsers, CSS for formatting, etc. We’re still using this system I created to power WMP, not only the front end but all the back end needs such as purchase orders, inventory management, sending order confirmations/tracking etc. But with the new Pure Traditions store, I opted to go with Shopify, if for no other reason that it integrates very well with social media (which makes my marketing person quite happy) and I don’t have to worry about any system crashes at 3am!
Q. Interesting! One last question. What does your Mom think about all of this?

A. I'm not totally sure, but I hope she's proud. She's always been supportive of anything that I do and just wants me to be happy. This whole health interest of mine definitely was sparked by her. She's still doing well now at the ripe old age of 92, I sure hope that I got a lot of her genes with regards to longevity! You know she's actually helped many people with their health issues as an energy healer over the years. I don't think she's doing much of it anymore, I guess she's finally really retired.