In 2013, Meg Barnhart and Jane McKay — two mothers committed to making nutritious, time-saving family meals — launched their original slow-cooker spice blends at a Chicago-area farmers market and swiftly sold out. Their still-unfolding success story is a recipe made of purpose, persistence, and savvy business acumen — plus a knack for relationship building.
Their story began back in 2012, when Barnhart wanted to create a business that could employ individuals with learning challenges — adults like her son, Doug. When she started slow cooking in 2006 to ease her mom-guilt and get a healthy dinner on the table, she never imagined the slow cooker would be a vehicle for change. With her vision in place, she began looking for a partner to help turn her dream into a reality. A friend called a few months later to tell her about McKay, saying, “I think she’s the person you’ve been searching for.” McKay had just moved to Chicago from the UK and was developing recipes and writing for a local food artisan.
When they met a few weeks later it was clear that they were meant to build Barnhart’s dream together. Six years later, their award-winning Zen of Slow Cooking products are gracing the shelves of over 1,250 Walmart stores coast to coast.
“Our dream has been to help people find time to get back around the dinner table for a delicious, healthy meal on a budget,” says Barnhart.
“We’re thrilled to be part of Walmart’s new innovative Meal Time Solutions category, which will bring our Zen Blends to millions of American households,” adds McKay.
Building the Business One Sale at a Time
The call from Walmart didn’t come out of the blue. Since their farmers-market days, Barnhart and McKay worked relentlessly to win placements at Whole Foods, Sunset Foods, and Peapod Online (where their blends are packaged in meal kits).
Along the way, they’ve won a Specialty Food Association sofiTM award for best new product, secured Non-GMO certification, and earned B Corp certification for their high standards of social and environmental performance. When pressure cookers became trendy, they quickly adapted their recipes for multicookers (i.e. Instant Pot), increasing their outreach.
Scaling up for Walmart: Could They Do It?
In Spring of 2018, a Walmart buyer reached out in interest. They were excited — and apprehensive. Could they scale up production to fill Walmart-size orders? Could they handle the upfront financing?
Calls were exchanged, and eventually, Barnhart and McKay flew to Walmart’s expansive Arkansas test kitchen, where they cooked up a storm for a team of buyers and taste-testers.
The Walmart team was “fantastic,” says McKay. They saw Zen blends as a great addition to their growing Meal Time Solutions category and offered many enthusiastic business suggestions.
However, after returning home and crunching the numbers, Barnhart and McKay concluded they couldn’t meet the upfront costs. This was a far cry from filling 40 pouches — it was fronting an order for 60,000 units.
“It was like saying no to the best prom date ever,” recalls Barnhart. “We had to turn them down.”
However, their Walmart buyer had given them a list of distributors to contact, which they did. One of them, Jacob Shayota, National Account Manager for Express Trading International, who became a great source of knowledge and encouragement.
Barnhart reached out to the Walmart buyer, and although the category had already been closed, he was receptive — if they could commit on the spot. She did, and a deal was struck.
Walmart is featuring four of Zen’s nine spice blends, including Indian Dal (with a recipe for Red Lentil Coconut Curry), Tuscan (Balsamic Sausages & Peppers), Smoky BBQ (Carolina Pulled Pork) and Southwest Fiesta (Chicken Tortilla Soup). Additional recipes for all Zen blends can be found online.
Found in Walmart’s soup/gravy mixes aisle (under sauce and gravy mixes), each pouch sells for $2.96 and includes an easy-to-prepare recipe that will feed a family of 4-6 for under $20 — just as Barnhart and McKay have been doing for years.