When it came to starting a business, necessity truly was my mother of invention.
In 2006, I had three young children, one with a complex speech disorder, and no time to recreate the idyllic family dinners that I’d experienced growing up. One day I felt especially frustrated and called my best friend in tears. She told me to stop crying and buy a slow cooker.
I did, and over the next couple years, I’d throw together ingredients every morning and by afternoon, everyone would come home to something warm cooking for dinner. But then it was my daughter in tears. Watching me pull out the slow cooker one morning, she started crying because she didn’t want another slab of “thick meat”—traditional slow-cooker fare.
So, I took matters into my own hands. I dusted off my cookbook collection and started pulling together my own slow-cooker recipes. It wasn’t until 2012, when I met my business partner Jane McKay, that I realized my recipes could evolve into a business to help other time-starved home cooks add variety and spice to their dinners. That’s when our business, Zen of Slow Cooking, was born.
Turning a blog into a business
My original dream was to write a cookbook featuring my slow-cooker recipes. Finding Zen had become a central mission in my personal life, so the cookbook would combine my two passions—slowing down life while cooking more mindfully.
I didn’t have culinary expertise and needed someone who knew about food science and marketing. Jane was that person. She was testing recipes for cookbook authors and had a background in developing foods. As she was already doing some food writing, we decided to co-create a blog using the cookbook concept as our guide.
We knew there were plenty of other families out there struggling to put a healthy meal on the table every night. Social media provided the avenue not only to publish our recipes but also to build a community around cooking at the same time. I write about the Zen connection that comes from slowing down life—which includes slow cooking—and Jane writes about the recipes.
Evolving our brand
As our blog took off, we realized there was a greater opportunity. We started to develop spice blends to accompany our recipes—a natural extension of our commitment to make home cooking as simple and stress-free as possible. The blog allowed us to track our most-downloaded recipes, and Jane developed spice blends for the three most popular dishes that we could sell online. They were an immediate success with our small, but growing, community of followers.
In 2013, we began our true foray into retail with a stall at the local farmers market. We originally brought 24 of the spice packets that Jane had produced by hand and quickly sold out. The next week we brought 100, and pretty soon we couldn’t keep up with demand. We decided to partner with Planet Access Company, a warehousing and distribution company that employs adults with disabilities, to help us with our packaging and fulfillment.
In 2016, our growth really took off. We began co-branding meal kits with Peapod, a specialty grocery delivery chain in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, and in 2018, KeHE, a national distributor that specializes in growing small brands, approached us. Today, we have three full-time and four part-time employees, and our spice blends are nationally distributed and sold in many different types of retailers—from boutiques up through Whole Foods and Walmart.
Measuring success through impact
While the commercial success of the Zen of Slow Cooking has been thrilling and gratifying, Jane and I still measure our personal success by the number of people we’re helping prepare a home-cooked meal every night. Even through the most hectic stages of our growth, we’ve made time to teach cooking classes—focusing on adults with autism and young parents. We love helping families develop the ritual of shared meals at the end of the day.
Over the past few years, Jane and I have expanded on the idea of encouraging family dinners by promoting community dining. We held our first community dinner in 2017 and are planning a second this year. Through our blog and social media, we encourage our followers to host their own “Zen Dinners” and provide free spice blends to everyone who signs up.
With so many people starving for time and real connection in today’s world, we’re trying to help as many people as we can find those things in the same way I did over a decade ago—through delicious, healthy and simple slow cooking.
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