Meg Barnhart is Enhancing Food and Enriching Lives
"You are not a failure! Get off your phone and buy a crockpot". The words that changed Meg Barnhart's life and ultimately the lives of many in her community.
Meg Barnhart, Co-Founder, Zen of Slow Cooking
This last year has brought out the home chef in all of us, and for Meg Barnhart, she couldn't be more thrilled. After all, her passion is bringing people together to share a meal. And her company, Zen of Slow Cooking (Zen), offers people a simple way to serve delicious home-made, restaurant-quality meals to their families with their globally-inspired spice blends and recipes.
"You aren't a failure. Get off your phone and buy a Crockpot".
So how did those words changed your life?
As a young mother, I struggled to provide a home-cooked meal for my three children. With so many activities competing for my time during the after-school hours, paired with the challenge of having a child with a complex speech and language disorder, I always felt like I was falling behind.
As I poured out my heart to my best friend one evening, she told me three things that changed my life.
You aren't a failure.
Don't answer your phone after 3 pm.
Go buy a Crockpot.
Looking back, I had no idea a small kitchen appliance would lead to a radical shift in my life. The seeds for the Zen of Slow Cooking were planted that day but didn't take root until I met my business partner, Jane McKay, in 2012.
Why did you start your business?
I grew up in a home where family dinners were the highlight of my day. So my entry into the food and beverage world was centered around my passion for bringing people together over a shared meal coupled with my desire to create a business that could employ adults with learning challenges.
What is your mission?
Our mission is to help aspiring home cooks serve tasty, wholesome dinners to their families. We do this by providing simple-to-make recipes featuring our artisanal, certified non-GMO spice blends, creating healthy and truly delicious dishes. We are committed to creating an inclusive community by providing employment for adults with developmental disabilities through this mission.
"We are committed to creating an inclusive community by providing employment for adults with developmental disabilities through this mission".
How have you created an inclusive community?
Zen has fulfilled its dream by partnering with Planet Access Company, the organization that handles our e-commerce fulfillment, to provide training and employment for adults with developmental disabilities. We are a Certified B Corporation which means we are a business that balances purpose and profit.
We also use our website to raise funds for causes near and dear to our hearts. Last year, we raised money for; Fill a Heart 4 Kids, Chicago Autism Project, Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation, The Family Dinner Project, and the North Lawndale Employment Network that provides job training for people re-entering society after incarceration.
Learn about Zen's social impact.
How has the business been this last year, and what have you learned?
It is more challenging than ever in the COVID environment to find ways to accelerate velocity in physical stores. There is no sampling, and consumers are not lingering and evaluating products in the store in the same way they would have two years ago.
But, the shift to online shopping, where consumers can easily find our product, our content, and how it fits with their needs, whether dietary or simply to "time-shift" their cooking, has been dramatic.
With so many people spending more time at home and experimenting in the kitchen, coupled with more online shopping, we've had an incredible year.
What was your most challenging experience at Zen?
2018 really challenged our business in many ways. We entered into national distribution too early and without enough brand recognition. Our packaging, while beautiful, wasn't easily understood by the consumer, so we had difficulty in customer acquisition.
With all that in mind, we had a large US retailer pick us up and then disregard our advice on store positioning for our product. They also put us in a promotion with a large competitor, who is 50% less expensive, without providing the consumer with information discerning our brand's premium value, the quality, natural ingredients, and the more interesting and healthy recipes options we provide. The net cost to loss to our business was thousands of dollars.
What did you learn from that experience?
Large distributors and retailers are always looking for the next "trend" but are generally not skilled at developing either that trend or a specific brand. I would recommend focusing on nailing your velocity in your home market and initial stores before expanding to markets outside of your core geography.
What is your vision for the business moving forward?
Our vision is to become a pantry staple. Our spice blends are designed to be the flavor foundation for a variety of recipes crafted to be made in your slow cooker or its millennial cousin – the Instant Pot.
We want to help more people understand they can leverage the slow cooker and/or instant pot to "time-shift" their cooking. You can put the same great Zen meal in the slow cooker 8 hours before you want to serve dinner, or in the Instant Pot 30 minutes before you want to serve dinner, enabling whoever is the cook in the home that day to do the preparation when it is convenient for their schedule.
What's next for the Zen of Slow Cooking?
We were just picked up by WW (Weight Watchers) for their newest Love Collection! We're also updating our packaging and trialing a new blend crafted for individuals who are committed to plant-based eating, as well as updating our online content around vegetarian cooking. Over 50% of our recipes are vegetarian, and with the Instant Pot, a whole new generation of cooks have entered the market.
You have a business tool that you value and would like to share with others, what is that?
I use tools such as StrengthFinders and the Enneagram to gain a deeper understanding of myself and my team. It has equipped me to better listen to and inspire the people who work in and on our business. We also use those tools to help create better synergy between our team members. This allows us to help them use their gifts to positively impact our business and also gives them the opportunity to shine each day.
What advice would you give someone who wants to start a business?
I always encourage people to ask themselves "why?"–not how or what–when they want to start a business. In the food industry, margins are low, and the competition is stiff, so connecting inward will help you weather the ups/downs.
What advice would you give your 25-year old self?
Lean into your faith, breath, meditate and be kinder to yourself.
Who are the five people- living or dead- you would invite to your dream dinner party?
What is your Motto?
What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail.
The Zen of Slow Cooking is enhancing people's food while enriching the lives of individuals in their community.
Zen is committed to making a social impact by raising funds focused on issues close to their mission, such as food scarcity, learning disabilities, and health issues. Find out more about how you can Give Back and Spread Some Zen.
You can find all of Zen's award-winning spice blends and recipes here, The Zen Of Slow Cooking