A Perham High School graduate leads a new kind of company that teaches food entrepreneurs in Minnesota how to get their products on store shelves.
It started after talking with a friend at a farmers market about finding their way in the industry with little to no guidance. Someone should do something. So they did.
Zoie Glass founded Midwest Pantry with Chad Gillard in 2010. As of this summer, the company has helped more than 350 food and gift companies and has 60 members. Glass is president and CEO, and Gillard is vice president.
“Midwest Pantry is a membership-based organization with a goal of making Minnesota the No. 1 place to start and have a food business in the nation,” Glass said.
The 40-year-old graduated from Perham High in 1994, with friends from around Otter Tail County like Crystal Frank of Fergus Falls. They’ve been best friends since long ago — one says fifth grade, the other says seventh. Glass earned a degree in communications at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul before moving to Fergus Falls for 2 1/2 years. An opportunity to do social work with homeless youth ages 16 to 21 in the Twin Cities brought her back to the metropolis.
“I very much enjoyed that,” she said.
Glass grew up in a family with aunts and parents who had their own businesses, so she felt she could start something, too. In 2007, she put her knowledge of canning — ever wonder why it’s called canning when it’s done with jars? — from growing up the daughter of Gary and Jean Glass, to use. She started Lucille’s Kitchen Garden, named for her daughter, who is now 14. The business offers pepper-fruit jams, garlic jams, strawberry verjus jam and wine and mead jellies.
At first, it was difficult to convince stores to put the products on the shelves, but a story in the Star Tribune bolstered requests from sellers. Its products are now found throughout the Upper Midwest.
It was that struggle getting going that inspired her next venture — to found Midwest Pantry with Gillard in 2010.
The old model of being a food startup had no in-between steps, she said. It was getting in farmers markets and a few stores or getting together a $50,000 marketing budget and attending expensive trade shows on the coasts. And even with great products, entrepreneurs could lose it all at the whims of buyers.
While working together, splitting trade-show booths, Glass and Gillard decided somebody should do something about the lack of education available.
“Then we just decided, ‘Let’s do this.’”
Besides, Glass likes the business side more anyway.
“I grew up with that bootstrapping mentality.”
Midwest Pantry provides education through classes and mentoring and through trade shows where entrepreneurs can meet buyers. Classes might provide exposure to food attorneys and social media experts.
“We create bridges to get them over the gaps,” Glass said. “People can spend a lot of time and money trying to meet buyers from Kowalski’s Markets and Cub Foods. It can be daunting.”
Midwest Pantry started informally, helping people out for a fee, but now it’s transitioned into a member-based model. Many of the companies come from where the food is grown — Greater Minnesota.
Glass said smaller cities are great places to afford kitchen space, and the customers in the Twin Cities, she said, like buying things from around the state. She said it has a “super loyal base trying to support local and natural.” The Twin Cities has more co-ops per capita than any other place in the United States,” she added.
One company in Fergus Falls is Terroir Chocolate, owned by Josh and Kristin Mohagen. The company produces gourmet chocolates with a strong sense of place.
“They are exactly the kind of company that we started Midwest Pantry to work with,” Glass said.
They contacted her shortly before a Midwest Pantry trade show. Now, they are a mainstay at shows and classes. “You could tell they were super invested in doing the legwork,” she said.
Josh Mohagen said Glass not only helps them meet buyers but shows them how to look their best. He described classes teaching topics like wholesale pricing and the language of distributors and buyers.
He said Midwest Pantry has bettered the bottom line for Terroir Chocolate.
Mohagen said before its first trade show, Terroir’s products were in 25 stores. Now, they’re in 100 stores. Though not all the credit belongs to Midwest Pantry, he said, it deserves its fair share.
For instance, Terroir Chocolate got into Golden Fig Fine Foods, an artisan food store with Midwestern goods in St. Paul. Being there serves as a conversation piece when speaking with other buyers.
“Golden Fig has fine chocolate, and ours is a top seller on their shelf.”
Mohagen said Glass made that happen.
“She has the positive energy to lead a movement of getting people together, championing smaller, high-quality food producers,” he said.
Glass married in June 2015. Unfortunately, her wife, Amy Glass, is battling cancer, and everyone who knows the couple is concerned for her health.
“Amy is as detail-oriented kind of a person as you will ever find,” Mohagen said, “and never drops the ball on anything, and so they are the dream team, the two of them.”
Last year, Midwest Pantry received a Eureka Award for being one of the most innovative companies in Minnesota. In late May, the applause continued as the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal named Glass one of its 2016 Women in Business award recipients.
Frank, the best friend, works at the Body Mind Center in Fergus Falls. Glass stays with Frank when she visits. Frank enjoys going to Midwest Pantry trade shows and seeing how Glass connects with new business owners.
“She is one of the most generous and giving people I know,” Frank said. “She is a highly skilled business owner, but her passion is helping other small businesses grow.”