Admit When You Don’t Know Something — If you can admit what you don’t know, you can surround yourself with people who can help you make up for that deficit. When my wife and I started Real Food Blends, we knew how to build the brand, the marketing and how to raise money via investors. We didn’t know all of the legal or accounting stuff. We found lawyers and accountants to handle what we could not, so we could focus on our strengths.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewingTony Bombacino, a marketing leader and entrepreneur. Inspired by his young son AJ, who gets his nutrition from a feeding tube, Tony and his wife co-founded Real Food Blends and disrupted the multi-billion dollar enteral feeding industry by providing real food meals blended for people with feeding tubes. Now, Tony is ready to begin his second chapter as a husband, dad, investor, entrepreneur and non-profit advisor.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born on the South Side of Chicago. I’m the youngest of three children. My parents divorced when I was 5. I lived with my mother and older brother and sister. We were dirt poor and on welfare, but at the same time, I had a ton of fun and great experiences. I played sports, and I had the best role model in my brother, Scott, who was seven years older than me and an All-American athlete. He was always so positive and really guided me during those early years.
My life was turned upside down during the summer before 8th grade. A drunk driver hit my mom and sister head-on in broad daylight. My mom never fully recovered and I had to move in with my dad after years of not speaking with him. It was quite traumatic; after a couple of years in the hospital and a nursing home my mom passed away when I was just 15. It was also a pivotal moment for me. After attending the same school for kindergarten through 7th grade, I had to go to a new school where my athletic ability helped me assimilate, but this school is also where an English teacher took me under his wing and encouraged me to believe in my academic abilities as well. I watched my dad, who is also a Vietnam Vet, quit his job in corporate America and start his own painting company. I carried that spirit of determination and independence with me as I pursued my career and my entrepreneurial dreams.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Start with gratitude,” I repeat those three words every morning. Just like a lot of other folks, I have been through some tough stuff. My son AJ had a seizure at 6 months old, which revealed a host of medical complexities, including the need for a feeding tube. At 10 years old, my son can’t walk or talk. His needs inspired my wife, Julie, and me to co-found Real Food Blends, a company that makes 100% real food meals for people with feeding tubes. We disrupted an industry that made billions by only creating formulas for people like our son. We gave families and caregivers the option of giving their loved ones the blended version of the same food they put on their plate — and tried to bring back humanity and joy to mealtime.
As we juggled caring for our son, our older daughter, Luca, and a growing company we invested our life savings into, there were definitely some difficult times. But I remembered to start each day with gratitude. I still give thanks for the good stuff each day before I get lost in the negative moments. I focus on accountability, and I know I can control my own destiny. That guides me and allows me to lead with a smile.
Now when I feel something getting under my skin, I repeat the same prayer over and over, “Lord, thank you for my health, my family, my friends, Real Food Blends, and thank you for my home and mentors. Help guide me to be a better person.” Just saying those words is grounding and helps me from staying down or stuck in the wrong mindset for too long.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Life is always going to throw you curveballs, you just have to adjust to catch them, right? Here are the three qualities that allow me to pivot, catch and adjust.
- The Ability To Reframe Situations in Real-Time — When something bad happens, you can say it sucks. The key is to stop yourself from spiraling out of control. My 3-year-old lab was recently diagnosed with cancer. That’s devastating news for our family, but we can give our pup the best we can while we still have him. So now we can reframe the situation and focus on what we can do and the years we have with him instead of what we can’t do or the potential loss.
- Embrace Humility — Don’t allow money, material things and titles to define who you are. My mother taught me to find humor as much as possible even in the worst of times. My father showed me the importance of treating the janitor with the same respect you show the CEO. And, my brother, Scott, taught me to find the positive. Even as cancer took him away from us at the age of 40, he focused on the positive and was an amazing example of grace and strength. Humor, respect and positivity keep me grounded, along with friends and family who will always tell me like it is.
- Feel Your Feelings — I cry, I get angry and I get pissed. I feel my feelings and I process them; then I figure out how to make the best of it. I went to college for five years and had no home to return to during that time. My dad remarried and moved 700 miles away and Chicago was home to me. Sure, that was frustrating, but I went to work. I spent my summers making money and figured out how to keep moving forward. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by a major problem, but you have to take on the mindset of a great golfer. You have to slow yourself down and take it one shot at a time.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
I was always a data nerd and also incredibly curious. I first majored in computer science before switching to marketing in the late 1990s when worldwide digital innovation took off. I quickly realized that it wasn’t the data that I loved, but what you can do with it. I enjoyed learning about consumer behavior and figuring out what makes people tick. I built upon that passion and became a marketing executive, but my affection for entrepreneurship bubbled beneath the surface.
Real Food Blends was created when all of my passions merged at a moment of desperation. Due to some brain malformations and other complications, my son AJ couldn’t eat with his mouth and needed to receive his nourishment from a feeding tube. We gave him doctor-prescribed formula, but he seemed miserable and wasn’t thriving. My wife, Julie, decided to start blending food and give it to him, which was considered risky at the time. She gave him a tiny bit of applesauce through his feeding tube and … nothing bad happened. He was fine. Julie dedicated herself to the care of our children. She blended all of AJ’s meals! To our delight, his disposition and health improved. However, we also realized how time-consuming blending full meals can be. As we prepared to take a family vacation, we realized we’d have to lug a blender, fruits, veggies and everything else to make sure AJ could eat healthy meals. It was at that moment in 2012 that the idea for Real Food Blends was born.
I come from a big Italian family where food was always at the center of our conversations –same with my wife Julie, who is also a former marketing executive. It was obvious to us that shelf-stable blended food meals for people with feeding tubes were missing from the marketplace. We realized there had to be more families like our own who would want to give their loved ones a wide variety of real food if there were an option as convenient and portable as a feeding-tube formula.
Julie and I knew how to build a website and a brand. We didn’t know much about food production, supply chain, inventory management or medical insurance reimbursement, which are all things needed for this business to thrive. We read every book, scoured the internet and turned to friends who we knew had expertise in areas where we needed help. It took more than two years to get Real Food Blends to market, but it really took off from there. We have sold millions of meals nationwide and helped change the culture of care for people with feeding tubes. Our company reminded the medical industry that a feeding tube is not a death sentence and food should be available to feeding tube patients with working digestive systems.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
This chapter is all about doing what I love, and I’m still in the early stages of metamorphosis. My main goal is to connect more with my children and wife. AJ is 10 and growing. We may have to move or modify our home to accommodate his needs. Luca is (almost) a teen now. I want to be present for her during these critical years of childhood. My wife and I want to travel, give more of our time to causes we care about and just spend some time together “being still”. I can now set my schedule around all of them, instead of setting my schedule around building our business.
I also have goals outside of the family. In addition to working with and investing more in startups and dabbling in voice-over work, I want to continue to be for others what I needed during the most trying times of my life. Through board roles for various charities and other philanthropic ventures, I hope to help families of people with medical complexities, ensuring they have access to everything they need regardless of their socio-economic status. I also want to mentor young children with similar backgrounds to my own.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
We love and care for every one of our Real Food Blends customers. But here’s the thing: Just as AJ’s needs drove us to create Real Food Blends, his changing complex needs, and those of our daughter, made us realize we needed another steward for Real Food Blends. Since the moment we disrupted the multi-billion dollar feeding tube industry, major companies have been trying to buy or acquire us. We did not want our company to land in a system where it would be forgotten along with the thousands of families who depend on our meals.
We were still trying to figure out how to get to our next chapter when Nutricia entered our lives. From the first meeting, we felt like their culture and mission mirrored our own. They treated their employees the way we treated ours. And Nutricia’s team also recognized that ensuring people with feeding tubes have access to real food is a global issue. They understood the critical role food can play in improving the quality of life of people with special medical conditions. We knew Nutricia’s plans for Real Food Blends would preserve and build on the things that make Real Food Blends so important to us, our son and all of our customers. We knew they were the right partner that would nurture our company and enable us to move on to our next chapter with peace of mind.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
We live in a wonderful age where you can learn by scouring the internet, walking into a book store or relying on your network. When I could not find answers to questions online or in a book, I spoke to friends, family and mentors who had expertise in areas I did not. I will continue doing that as I live out this next chapter.
I have overcome barriers because there was no Plan B for me. When I went to college, I had no choice but to find a way to finish. I didn’t have a Plan B when my wife and I started Real Food Blends and used much of our life savings to get it off the ground. We had to succeed. Failure was not an option. As I enter this next chapter of doing what I love, failure is still not an option. I have to love and be there for my family. I have to make an impact on the lives of families of loved ones with medical complexities and children who feel like the deck is stacked against them. I’m blessed to have this as my path and mission for the rest of my life.
How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.
Doing what I love is going well. I’m enjoying the extra time with my wife and kids. I’m also enjoying my philanthropic work. I’m letting my faith and passions guide me as I find nonprofit organizations to support. Jacob’s Ladder Pediatric Rehabilitation is one of my favorite nonprofit organizations in Northwest Indiana. Their mission aligns with my own, which is to ensure that no child who needs comprehensive care goes without it. Jacob’s Ladder provides care at its facility as well as in the homes of its patients.
I’m also working with A Rosie Place for Children in South Bend, Indiana. This organization is perfect for families of children with special needs. It’s located on a large piece of land. Each room inside the house has a theme. They have a huge park with adaptive equipment. We call it “camp” for AJ. The great thing about A Rosie Place for Children is that all families can use it. Children can go there for one week a year, and the parents know they are in good hands. In some cases, that week at A Rosie Place for Children may be the only break a family gets from the rigorous routine of caring for a child with special needs.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am so grateful to my brother, Scott. As a child, I lived up to the little brother stereotype and did everything possible to annoy him. I wore his clothes, broke his stuff and ruined his baseball cards, but he never gave up on me. He always loved me and pushed me to be my best self.
When I first found success in my career, I had a little money and became stressed about looking like a sellout. He reminded me to be proud of myself and what I’d accomplished because I did it. And when his cancer came back after six years of remission, he handled it with such grace. It’s like he was preparing me for all the challenges ahead, and to become the dad I am today — for AJ and Luca.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
My phone and email have been busy fielding amazing job opportunities. It’s so interesting that people come looking for you when you’re not on the hunt for a new position. Some of them have piqued my interest, but at the moment I just want to be at peace with myself. I am happy to spend time with my wife and our family while finding meaningful ways to contribute to our community. I certainly have more to do professionally as well, but it will likely take a different form than a traditional full-time “job”.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
You have to believe in yourself. That’s harder to do than to say, right? I was a poor kid. I was tall, skinny and embarrassed by my home situation. Thankfully, I was good at sports and my brother always had my back. But there were still more struggles ahead. I was laid off from my first job after college, after only 18 months of employment. I hadn’t saved any money and, for a moment, felt pretty helpless. But I focused on the positive. I leaned on my family and network to help me get through the fear and to the next job.
In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?
I am lucky to have so many great friends and mentors who have helped me through every chapter of my life. You have to find like-minded people who will be honest with you, but who will also allow you to be vulnerable.
The same people who answered my questions as we created and grew Real Food Blends are the same people who are cheering us on as we transition into investing more into our family and doing things that we love.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
My wife and I created and built Real Food Blends to make sure people with feeding tubes had the option of real food, an option they could use in the house or on the go. The company was inspired by our son. It was like a third child. Allowing another entity to take it over and take it to the next level was hard for me. But I knew my wife and I couldn’t sustain the pace we were on with Luca and AJ’s changing needs.
I stepped out of my comfort zone when I took the call from Nutricia. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised by the company’s mission and understanding of the impact good food could have on people living with feeding tubes. Nutricia also already has the structure in place to do something I could not do with two children at home at critical stages of their lives. Nutricia can and will take Real Food Blends to the next level, ensuring that more people living with a feeding tube will have the option of having Real Food Blends meals, which are shelf-stable and packed with 5 to 7 consciously sourced, real food ingredients.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why?
- Slow Down — Stop being in a hurry. Be present in the moment you’re in, and be patient. I remember early in my career I wanted more responsibility and I wanted it fast. My boss told me to settle down and learn to be an expert at the tasks already on my plate. I learned to focus on being a utility and finding a way to make other people’s jobs easier.
- Be Authentic — At the start of my career, I mimicked a lot. I thought I had to be like the people I considered to be successful. I was harsh and worked 100 hours a week. When I was 30, I realized I didn’t have to be that way. I could be myself. I’m an emotional guy. I like to laugh and share the highs and lows of experiences. When I embraced my authentic self and led with a smile, my teams and I accomplished much more — and with a lot more joy.
- Surround Yourself With Great People — People are everything. Make sure your circle is unbreakable. You want to know they will be there through the highs and lows. Most of my closest friends are people I grew up with. They’ve seen me at every stage of my life, they have my back and always keep me grounded (and smiling).
- Admit When You Don’t Know Something — If you can admit what you don’t know, you can surround yourself with people who can help you make up for that deficit. When my wife and I started Real Food Blends, we knew how to build the brand, the marketing and how to raise money via investors. We didn’t know all of the legal or accounting stuff. We found lawyers and accountants to handle what we could not, so we could focus on our strengths.
- Don’t Give Up — When you care about something, you don’t give up. I tell my daughter all the time, “If you love volleyball enough, you’ll proactively put in the hard work and you won’t give up.” I knew I loved Real Food Blends because we were fueled by passion. The hard stuff didn’t deter us because we felt it was pretty awesome to provide a solution for our son and thousands of other people living with feeding tubes.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I just want people to believe in themselves and what they can do. The special needs community will always be near and dear to my heart. I will always work to amplify the voices of the fathers in that community. I want them to express their emotions and know they are not alone as they navigate this often difficult journey.
I also want to get more involved with kids who come from homes and backgrounds like my own. It breaks my heart when I see kids like me because, at the moment, they’re letting their parent’s divorce, loss of a loved one and/or financial struggles define them. I want to mentor them and show them what is possible if they believe in themselves. I know I was lucky because I had a great big brother, good coaches and teachers who helped me see my potential — and pushed me to live up to it.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
Hypothetically, I’d like to have a private lunch or breakfast with Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and/or Jeff Bezos. Each one of them has an element of genius that I’d love to learn from — and each of them has motivated me to work harder and be more curious at different stages of my life. But that probably won’t happen. So, if I had to choose one person, it would be my tough, yet empathetic 8th-grade teacher Paul Fornatar. He believed in me, put me in honors English class to push me to rise above the nonsense, and helped me see that my mind could get me as far, if not further than, my athletic ability. He was only my teacher for one year, but he completely changed how I viewed myself and others — and the entire trajectory of my life!
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Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!