Catching Up with Gretchen’s Grains: How One Small Business is Poised to Take Off
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Talk to a dozen entrepreneurs and you find a few common traits: a tireless work ethic, an ability to dream big, and a fearlessness to cast one’s fortunes to the whims of a fickle economy. Talk to successful entrepreneurs and you get romanticized tales of those early bootstrapping days—ones they are still a little shocked to have survived. And you hear about the time when things finally took off and small business dreams turned into a viable reality.
In Seattle, Washington, there is a small business at the precipice, in the process of shifting from years of dogged work to what may soon become a national brand. It started in the kitchen of an overwhelmed young mother named Gretchen Evans.
“We had twins, and then we had another baby 15 months later,” Evans explains. She found herself cooking and freezing lots of baby food. “Anything I’d make, I’d just double it and freeze it, and that was really, really handy. I realized if I just made a ton of this brown rice and spread it on a sheet and bagged them up in individual bags, I’d have this freezer full of tools.” Her stock of brown rice, quinoa and other whole grains became “mother ingredients” to pull together quick meals.
Friends and family noticed what she was doing and asked for some to take home and try. When the Evanses ran out of their own freezer stock, there were no other simple frozen grains in stores to buy, and it occurred to them that frozen grains could turn into a business opportunity.
The timing was crazy—and perfect. Prior to having the twins, Evans had been in graduate school; she traveled frequently. “Suddenly, I had twins. My whole world was opened and shattered,” says Evans. But she had these frozen grains that everyone seemed to love, and as market research showed, they could fill an untapped niche for easy-to-prepare grains. Her husband Bill, who’d previously owned a flight school, had business knowledge, and Evans says she had the motivation: “having the three kids and wanting something of my own.”
She went to work full time at night, waitressing and bartending when her youngest was one month old, and switched off during the day with her husband for four years, alternately caring for the kids and working on what would become Gretchen’s Grains. “At times, I felt like this is never, never going to work… I’m going to waitress forever.”
They began with a plan to get the packaging done and do the rest by hand while building brand recognition, but a timely bit of practical advice made them think bigger. “I was talking to my dad,” Evans remembers, “and he said, ‘Oh, you’re going to make it by hand? So you have a hobby. You don’t have a business.’ And it totally enraged me—and it enraged me because he was right.”
The model for Gretchen’s Grains shifted: finding a processor to cook and freeze single-ingredient grains, lining up a packing facility, working with UNFI, the natural foods distributor. The company took the leap from kitchen project to products sold in 230 stores—and Gretchen became the face of a growing company.
Scott Owen, grocery merchandiser for PCC Natural Markets, a Seattle-based natural foods co-op that sells Gretchen’s Grains, sees her products as rivals to shelf-stable products like instant rice. “It’s kind of the difference between frozen and canned corn. There are some textural and taste differences.” More to the point though, Owen sees Gretchen’s Grains as hitting a broad target market of people cooking on a time crunch, “if you don’t have time to go ahead and cook up your wheat berries or your rice, it’s a nice thing because it cooks so quickly.”
Evans does in-store demos demonstrating just that a few times each week. “People think I’m famous,” she says, giggling at the absurdity. “People ask for my autograph. It’s so hilarious…. And I’m like, no, no, no, I’m just a bartender from West Seattle. That’s the disconnect between what a small business is and what it isn’t.” She clarifies, “It’s really, really hard work, and people assume that if you own your own business, you’ve made it.”
But the company is on its way to solid footing. Recently Evans pitched the grocery chain Fred Meyer, the Pacific Northwest branch of national food giant Kroger. “It was the most nerve racking experience of my life, but with a great outcome.” Gretchen’s Grains is sold in 130 Fred Meyers and if all goes well, Gretchen will be pitching to Kroger’s corporate offices this fall—which could mean a roll-out in more than 2300 stores.
Building a business is a leap of faith, then a series of painstakingly careful steps, and if you’re lucky, the boom times. For Evans, “the hardest part was how long we had to work, and I already forget about it, because now we’re where we want to be.”
Evans now sees her evening waitressing shifts as a nice social break. “By five o’clock I want out of the house.” She brings home food and has a glass of wine with her husband around midnight. “Our lives are so crazy and we're so lucky that they are, that we have these opportunities to work hard and totally chase a dream right now. We know we’re going to look back at these as the best times.”