Meg Barnhart wanted to create a business that would help make a difference in people’s lives. Firstly, she knew she wanted to encourage the home cook to slow down and gather with loved ones over a shared meal. Secondly, she knew she wanted to help provide employment for adults with developmental disabilities. That’s when the Zen of Slow Cooking was born. What started a spice blend sold at local farmer’s markets in Lake Forest, Illinois has now boomed into a nationwide brand that is sold at Whole Foods, Walmart and many other supermarkets across the country. As success continues to come her way Barnhart is grateful for her intentional life well lived while helping others.
Barnhart’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
Yogini, LLC produces and markets a line of spice blends for the Instant Pot® and slow cookers called Zen of Slow Cooking Multi-Cooker Spice Blends: six blends of premium non-GMO spices (Coq Au Vin, Indian Dal, Provençale, Smoky BBQ, Southwest Fiesta, Tuscan) and two spice infusions (Moroccan Tagine and Sichuan). Zen of Slow Cooking Spice Blends are sold in these stores: Whole Foods Markets (Chicagoland, Wisconsin), Market of Choice (Oregon), Plum Market (Illinois, Michigan), Sunset Foods (Illinois), Piggly Wiggly (Alabama), Fresh Plus (Texas), Sunshine Health Foods (Louisiana) and 130 independent outlets. Online, the blends can be bought via thezenofslowcooking.com, Amazon, The Grommet, Uncommon Goods, Kroger Ship-to-Home, and Peapod. Co-branded meal kits are sold online through Peapod, Class Produce, and Sunset Gourmet.
My business partner Jane McKay and I are driven to build a better future for our families. The concept of slow, mindful cooking came from of our wish for a better dinner prep experience. We envisioned a better world where people gather to share a home-cooked meal made of unprocessed, quality ingredients. After exchanging ideas with thousands of home cooks through our Zen of Slow Cooking Blog we realized that the existing concept of slow cooking seasonings and recipes was ripe for disruption. We knew that we could provide a better product that would tap into home cooks’ desire for a streamlined yet quality cooking experience. The Zen of Slow Cooking concept promotes intentional slow cooking that is the antithesis of the “fix and forget it” model of the 1950’s. Likewise, our blends contain premium, non-GMO, non-irradiated, and gluten-free spices without the added sugar, salt, syrups, refiners, gums, etc. that are found in current brands. We also sought to build a business that employs adults with intellectual challenges, driven in part by my desire to create a business for my cognitively challenged son, Doug. The Zen of Slow Cooking employment model has proven to be successful for the business’ growth, as well as provided jobs for a segment of the population that is traditionally underemployed. Consumers value that Yogini LLC is a social impact company, building a profitable and positive business founded on the tenets of conscious capitalism. We successfully certified Yogini, LLC as a B Corporation in 2017 to confirm our commitment to a higher level of social and environmental purpose.
To me, success means being able to lead a good life – to wake up each day and try to do my part to make the world a little better. Having a child with learning challenges gave me the opportunity to personally evaluate what makes a “good life.” As a result, my personal and professional lives are intertwined and I can’t define success in one aspect without touching on the other. The result has been a social impact business that has allowed me to infuse a purpose into my work each day.
Jane and I started in 2012 with a dream of bringing people together over a shared meal and helping adults with developmental disabilities find independence through employment. As social entrepreneurs and a certified B Corporation, we must measure our success both financially and in societal impact. Moving on to just a few short years later: Our Zen of Slow Cooking Sichuan Spice Blend won a sofi Award for best new seasoning/spice from our top industry group (Specialty Food Association) and we have successfully scaled up our employment model at Planet Access Company to employ 30 adults with disabilities leading to a Trailblazers Award from Search, Inc. Zen of Slow Cooking has gone from a local Farmers Market to Whole Foods Market and, in the summer of 2019, to 1,000 Walmart stores.
My business partner and I recently came up against a very challenging business situation. Zen of Slow Cooking Spice Blends were taken on by a large grocery chain, but the marketing staff ignored our advice on the best way to merchandise and promote the brand. Consequently, our blends became overstocked in several locations resulting in excess inventory in multiple warehouses. It has been a logistical and financial challenge to fix the inventory levels – a situation that could have been avoided. Soon after that challenge, a national retailer approached us. Based on our recent experience and after carefully evaluating our numbers, we decided that it would not be a good time to work with this new retailer. We regretfully declined their offer, a difficult business decision for our young company. After sharing our decision with the category manager, he expressed that the retailer very much wanted Zen of Slow Cooking Spice Blends and we collaborated to find a way to make it work. The juxtaposition of these two situations demonstrated to me and Jane the need to be okay with “letting go” of opportunities, while also being present to other, different opportunities that may lay ahead.
My parents have been my role models. Both were committed to serving others in different ways: my father was a small-town family doctor so our home was a place where people came to be comforted and healed, and my mother was active and a full participant in every endeavor. They encouraged us to do our best and empowered us to take risks – to live enthusiastically, take personal responsibility, live with integrity, be kind and tell the truth. I remember watching the sun set with my mother on a gorgeous sunny day in Florida. I had just received several dismal diagnoses about my then 3-year-old son and was feeling very sad. As I shared my feelings with my mom, she said “Can’t you see the beautiful evening?” I responded with “My glass is half-full; can’t you understand that?” She quietly replied, “Margaret, if it’s something you can’t solve, it’s not a problem. It’s a fact.” At the time I was fatigued and annoyed by her comment. But over time, I understood her wisdom. In business and life we often try to solve a challenge by pushing through it. Sometimes it’s better to sit back and fully evaluate the situation at hand.