By: Greg Gonzales

“Who knew slow cookers could be a vehicle for change?” It may have been a rhetorical question, but when she asked it in January, Meg Barnhart clearly knew the answer ― she was giving an acceptance speech for the Specialty Food Association’s Business Leadership Award at the Winter Fancy Food Show. Slow cookers, Barnhart says, can change the world from from the dinner table to the community at large. Barnhart partnered in 2012 with co-creator Jane McKay to start a slow cooker recipe blog, zen of slow cooking, which expanded into a B Corporation that sells pre-packaged spice blends with the pair’s popular recipes printed on the bag. Barnhart wanted to start a business where she could share her passion for slow cooking; to help families spend more time together, to assist underserved populations and provide a place where people like her son, Doug, who face learning disabilities, could find work.

The dinner table, Barnhart said, is where it all started; she and her kids ― Phil, Doug and Lucy ― didn’t have much time between sports and dance lessons in the late afternoons and early evenings to cook meals that require a lot of last-minute prep work. “Slow cookers gave me an opportunity to bring my family back to the dinner table. It allowed me to prepare food when I wasn’t home, so when we all came home we had this great, warm, delicious meal waiting for us,” she said. “It was as much for me as it was for everybody else, and I felt like somebody had been cooking for me all day. I don’t think there’s anything that replaces that feeling when you walk into a home and there’s a cooking smell, that sensory component. You feel taken care of.”

The slow cooker gave her the freedom to prepare her food at nine in the morning, head off to work, come back and have a hot meal ready to serve right away. To her, that made the slow cooker a truly special appliance. Home cooks can’t leave the oven on before heading to work, and no one can really trust a hot stove while they’re helping the kids with homework, she said, because those appliances require more physical attention. “For most people with young families, either they aren’t physically home at 5:00 when everyone else gets home, or they don’t have the time to do the food prep. A slow cooker gives you a unique ability to create that healthy meal at a time that works into your schedule.”

The company offers 10 unique slow cooker spice blends, including Moroccan Tagine, Sichuan and Coq Au Vin. The globally-inspired, non-irradiated spice blends are certified GMO-free, contain no additives or fillers, “and only two have a little bit of salt in them,” said Barnhart. Each packet is pre-portioned, makes a recipe for four to six people and there are two packets per pouch. “A lot of what’s on the market are seasoning packets, which have other things in them – fillers,” Barnhart said. “Ours are just spices, pre-packaged, pre-portioned, meant to be used in combination with our recipes for the slow cooker or the Instant Pot. All the blends have recipes on the back of them, and when you go to our website, we have multiple recipes for each spice blend.” With recipes for both slow cooking and pressure cooking available, home cooks can make a meal while away from home or pressure cook a meal in minutes.

Barnhart and McKay still post to the blog, too, offering even more recipes and tips for their fans. “I write one Zen inspiration per month where I share a little perspective on how to bring a little Zen into your life, and Jane follows up with slow cooking recipes,” she said. “It’s very organic. We don’t advertise on it or anything, and we love to bring new people into our slow cooking journey.”

And she invites people of all backgrounds into that journey. Zen of slow cooking reaches out to underserved communities to provide education and assistance to those in need. Barnhart teaches classes in places like South Side Chicago, to show how slow cooking can be simple and help struggling families. On top of that, a percentage of each purchase is given to the Drishti Donation giving-back program, which provides Slow Cooker Community Boxes ― filled with zen spice blends and a slow cooker ― to group homes for special needs adults.

A mission to change the world for the better, Barnhart said, is what got the business started: “In 2010, I started studying what life was like for people with disabilities, cognitively and intellectually, in the state of Illinois, and I found the statistics were pretty grim,” she said. “Only 24 percent of adults with cognitive challenges are employed. My son is absolutely, incredibly wonderful and positive with so much to offer the world; I couldn’t imagine a world where he couldn’t shine his light ― and I decided I had to create a business for him. That was really the genesis [of the company].” Planet Access Company, a third-party logistics provider and social enterprise of nonprofit Search, Inc., was already providing employment for learning disabled individuals, so Barnhart partnered with them to take care of her company’s packaging needs. She sends the spice blends to Planet Access, and its team packages them in pouches. “The cool part about Planet Access is it’s a tiered employment model,” she said. “Those in training work on one part of our business, and as they gain more skills, they can work in the warehouse part of the business. They have a full-service warehouse, and there, it becomes more of an integrated employment model, where people with disabilities are working with people who don’t have disabilities.” With an expanded skill set both social and professional, she said, disabled individuals can go on to find employment elsewhere if they so choose. “It’s an unlikely pathway to success, but [zen of slow cooking] really started with this passion to create employment for people who don’t have employment opportunities,” she said. “I have a child with challenges; it’s gratifying to know I created a business he can work in someday. When we started with Planet Access Company, we had four adults with disabilities working in the business, and we’re now up to over 30. We have to keep growing that.”

Zen of slow cooking blends appeal to a wide range of consumers. “The fun part about our product is that we really are a lifestyle company. We have a lot of college kids who love us for tailgating,” said Barnhart, adding that young professionals also like the blends. “Our primary demographic is 30- to 55-year-olds, mostly women, and men who love pressure cooking. That’s actually a demographic that’s really rising; those are people who are cooking seven days a week– often they have families, and they don’t have the luxury of figuring out what they want to eat at 8:00 at night or ordering pizza. They usually have to get food on the table for their families by six, so they use the slow cooker all the time. Then, we get to the Baby Boomers, who often aren’t cooking as much but buy the blends for their kids who are getting started. Then, we’ve got the elderly, a generation of people who love us because it’s so easy to slow cook. Our recipes all take 20 minutes or less prep, some as little as 5 minutes of prep; if you have any kind of ability issues, or challenges standing for a long period of time, you can put our recipes together quickly and have a meal waiting for you.”

Retailers who carry zen of slow cooking blends get plenty of help selling them. “We spend a lot of time educating the grocery teams because they’re the front line for us once we leave the store,” Barnhart said. “When we go and do a demo, we spend a good hour talking to everyone at the store ― the grocery buyer, anyone stocking the shelves, the butchers. We leave them samples. These are the people who are helping us build the brand.” Through its robust brand ambassador program, which demonstrates the blends in-store, word of mouth spreads quickly. “We get about 10 people or more, customers who stop by and love us. They’re so excited about what we’re offering; they love our social mission, they love our product, the ease and simplicity of it, the health surrounding it ― they end up helping us sell it! They tell their friends, and once we’ve gone into the store one or two times, there’s this velocity that starts to flow.”

Barnhart also has tips for retailers and grocers who want to sell zen blends. “The stores that put us on a flat wall by the produce or the butcher, our packets fly off the shelf,” she said. “The butchers love us because we help them sell more meat. We’re designed to do that. It sells well anytime we’re right next to where fresh food is, because that’s how the packets are designed to be used, in combination with fresh food ― it’s not a product where you just add water, it’s something that requires you to cook with fresh foods.” As for kitchenware retail displays, she said it’s best to put the blends right next to a slow cooker or pressure cooker. “We’re in a couple of culinary stores that sell them. Any store that’s actually selling the slow cookers is a perfect fit for us. A lot of people like to use our blends as gifts. They’ll buy a slow cooker, an Instant Pot, and put three blends in to make it a gift for a new homeowner, new bride, new mom. It’s a great companion product.”

Zen of slow cooking spice blends have a suggested retail price of $6.99 per pouch. For more information, visit www.zenofslowcooking.com.

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