The Zen of Slow Cooking Spice Blends

Small Business, shale magazine, social impact

Social-Impact: Small Business Brings Savory Serenity to Family Meals, while Creating Work for Adults with Developmental Disabilities

Like many small businesses, the zen of slow cooking— which creates gourmet slow cooker spice blends — began as an effort to solve a problem. How does a busy mother of three juggle schedules, homework and quality time, yet still serve delicious, healthy dinners? Especially when one child has special needs?

For Meg Barnhart of Lake Forest, Illinois, the answer was simple: use her slow cooker. She started prepping ingredients during the school day, which freed her afternoons to spend with the kids … while the slow cooker worked its magic. She found her kitchen time surprisingly calming, and the blissful aromas filling the house brought out the best in her family.

In 2012, realizing she was onto something, Barnhart partnered with Jane McKay, a young mom with a background in food science and recipe development. The Zen of Slow Cooking food blog was born and quickly blossomed into a business.

Barnhart and McKay started mixing spice blends to go with their recipes. When they debuted their offerings at a local farmer’s market, they sold out immediately. They expanded into the wholesale and retail markets, leveraging the growing “speed scratch” home cooking trend.

Today, Zen Blends are sold at specialty grocers like Whole Foods, Sunset Foods and Peapod Online, where they’re packaged in meal kits, plus on Amazon and

Business as a Force for Good

From the beginning, their goal was to create a social-impact business. Barnhart, mindful of the lack of job opportunities for her son with developmental disabilities, was determined to create a place for him — and opportunities for other young adults like him. Today, all five of their children, ages 9-24, play a role in the business.

Barnhart and McKay chose to outsource their packaging to Planet Access Company (PAC), a local company that employs adults with developmental disabilities. Search, Inc., a not-for-profit that helps adults with intellectual limitations live full lives, subsequently awarded Zen with its 2017 Trailblazer Award for creating jobs for the community it serves.

Furthermore, a portion of every spice blend purchase goes to Zen’s Drishti Donation giving-back program, which provides Slow Cooker Community Boxes to group homes of adults with special needs. Each box includes a slow cooker, spice blend packs and consult on conducting a slow cooking class giving those who rarely get to cook a fulfilling experience.

For its efforts, Zen was granted B Corp certification in 2017. Certified B Corporations are for-profit companies that meet higher standards of social and environmental performance, transparency and accountability.

Sourcing Spices Mindfully

They currently offer nine “Zen Blends,” including: Smoky BBQ, their best-seller, Coq au Vin, their most widely searched for recipe online and Sichuan, Chinese chicken noodle soup, which won the Specialty Food Association’s 2017 sofiTM award for best new product in the seasoning/spice category.

Barnhart and McKay source their ingredients meticulously, starting with non-irradiated spices that are free of additives, chemicals and salt (exception: Smoky BBQ). Reflecting their commitment to operate transparently, all ingredients are listed on the packaging, along with a shopping list and recipe.

In early 2018, six of their Zen Blends earned Non-GMO Project Verification, reaffirming the company’s mission to produce clean, high-quality products.

Zen Blends are sold as two spice packets per pouch for $7.00 online. Their website is a goldmine of additional slow cooker recipes, and their blog has become a hub for slow cooker aficionados.

Stirring the Pot

While revenues doubled in 2017, Barnhart and McKay remain poised for growth and continue to seize new market opportunities. They recently partnered with Peapod to create their third slow cooker meal kit — this time, one that’s vegan.

After becoming captivated by the Instant Pot, they converted their slow cooker recipes for use with the popular gadget. Zen’s Instant Pot recipes can be found on their website.

Barnhart recently accepted a prestigious industry award: the Specialty Food Association’s 2018 Leadership Award.

They will soon be launching single blend pouches and are creating an “Eco-Zen” model for individuals who want their “flavor bombs” — a term coined by customers — but not the exterior pouch.

In short, the Zen of Slow Cooking continues to turn up the heat.

For information, contact Lekas & Levine PR, 847.327.9530 or [email protected]

Photos Courtesy of Russo’s Restaurants


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