Corn Fed Up: Why It's Time to Flip the Script on the Iowa Food Narrative
“Coooooooooorrrnnn fed! Don’t get me started on those people. They don’t know anything about this industry.”
The consultant saying these words on the other end of the phone didn’t know he was dissing my people. He didn’t know I was an Iowa native.
But here’s something else he didn’t know: Greater Des Moines (DSM) is the best kept secret in the natural products industry.
The Unwrapp’d Story
Entering last summer, Unwrapp’d was only in a handful of privately-owned grocery stores in the Denver/Boulder area. The area has been dubbed the “Silicon Valley” of the natural products industry by numerous articles and podcasts. But reality has a funny way of ignoring media hype.
Beneath the surface, we were noticing something different. While we have access to premier networking organizations, fellow entrepreneurs and investors — all focused in natural products out here — the most important thing for any company is customers.
There are very few private grocery stores remaining in Denver/Boulder. To obtain any real traction in retail (and thus customers and cash flow), your product needs to clear the gatekeepers at the big chains. But there are three major problems with gatekeepers in this field:
1. They work for large chains. Large organizations are riddled with bureaucracy. Bureaucracy moves slow. As a startup, your lifeblood is agility.
2. Their default setting is to keep the gate closed. As Allen Gannett writes in his wonderful book The Creative Curve, “gatekeepers are a notorious challenge for creative people.”
3. Gatekeepers operate in the shadows. They don’t want to be hassled by entrepreneurs hawking their goods.
In an Amazon world, handshake deals are a dying art. But in DSM, they are alive and well.
Next Stop: Des Moines
There’s a common blueprint for food and beverage startups to follow: launch locally, focus 100 percent on local distribution in your backyard for the first few years, slowly roll out regionally and then go national years later after proving yourself in your home market.
The problem with operating from the hub of an industry is that so is everyone else.
Enter Des Moines. With a population of about 650,000 people in the region, here are a few reasons why the state capital is an ideal launching pad for new natural products:
· Des Moines is the fastest growing city in the Midwest, and even surrounding metro cities like Waukee and Ankeny are ranking top ten nationwide for their growth rates.
· Des Moines is active. It’s one of the top biking cities in America according to Bicycling Magazine.
· Millennials — champions of natural products and ever-vigilant about what’s in the products they consume — are flocking to Des Moines.
And then there’s the one-of-a-kind, employee-owned retailer, Hy-Vee. Headquartered in West Des Moines, Hy-Vee is one of the most progressive grocers on the planet. They were the first to put a dietician in every store and most locations have their own Health Markets inside. This is essentially putting a natural food store inside a large “conventional” chain, AKA a win-win for natural brands.
With more than 240 locations across 8 states and over $10 Billion of products sold last year, partnering with Hy-Vee has helped us tailor our product, packaging and pitch.
Unwrapp’d recently launched into distribution across all eight states where Hy-Vee does business. Whereas 10 months ago we were in seven stores, Unwrapp’d is now on shelves in over 200 stores across nine different states. And then there are the smoothie shops, gyms, coffee shops, and running stores around the country that have ordered Unwrapp’d as a direct result of word-of-mouth from the Hy-Vee distribution.
Launching in Des Moines first paid off for us. It’ll also be a guiding principle for years to come: when everyone else zigs, we’ll zag. It’s off the beaten path where you discover new ways forward.
Greater Des Moines (DSM) has one of the best business climates in the country.The region is nationally recognized for having a talented and educated workforce, a cost of doing business 17 percent below the national average, a low cost of living and an exceptional quality of life.