Simple Mills CEO on a mission to promote clean eating

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Simple Mills creates natural and gluten-free baking mixes. Photo: Michaelle Bradford

Simple. Clean. Whole. Three words that characterize current healthy lifestyle trends centered around clean eating, non-processed, simple foods and low carb, gluten-free, non-inflammatory diets.

From Whole30 to Paleo, these popular diets encourage a focus on clean eating and healthy meals made from scratch with whole and nutrient-dense foods.

As a result, entrepreneurs like Katlin Smith, founder and CEO of Simple Mills, have created successful niche businesses based on the demand for clean, natural and non-artificial products.

How Simple Mills started

Simple Mills, which Smith launched six years ago, began as a natural baking mix company. It has grown tremendously in those six years and nearly tripled brand growth and revenue in 2018.

Its expanded product line now includes crackers, cookies, and frostings. Its footprint encompasses 16,000 grocery stores, up from 1,600 just 3 years ago.

In an interview on NBC’s Today Show, Smith said her company is the largest natural baking mix brand, second largest natural cracker brand and third largest natural cookie brand in the United States. And, Simple Mills has more than doubled in size every year it’s been in business.

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Katlin Smith, CEO and founder of Simple Mills, spoke at Startup Grind Chicago. Photo: Michaelle Bradford

Not bad for someone who didn’t plan on starting her own company. Smith told entrepreneurs at Startup Grind Chicago’s May meeting that although she didn’t envision starting on this path, “I think you kind of end up in the place you’re supposed to end up.”

Employed as a consultant for approximately three years, Smith said she worked long hours and traveled a lot. “I was eating a lot of processed food, and a lot of things I probably shouldn’t have been eating,” she added.

“I really wasn’t feeling my best, and I wasn’t feeling like myself. And I was talking to my friend about it, and he suggested to me that I might clean up my diet, and that might change my health. It really didn’t occur to me at the time that food impacts more than your waistline.”

So, Smith decided to experiment with clean eating alternatives. She replaced the processed food and sugar in her diet with simple, wholesome ingredients.

“[The results] shocked me,” she said. “Everything changed. And I just couldn’t believe that food could impact all these aspects of our mental and physical well-being. And once I realized that I was like, ‘I have to do something about this.’”

Smith decided to start her own food company because that was the best way to change what people eat.

“I think business drives a lot of what happens in the world,” she explained. “It’s much easier to change the world through business than it is through other things. So, I kind of realized that if I could make a company that made a product out of very simple, whole food ingredients, things that were more nutrient dense and worked harder for you, but also kept it really simple and tasted really good, then eating well would be a lot more personal for people. And the more personal for people, the more people are going to do it. That’s the easiest way to change how people are eating.”

Smith used her spare time on the weekends developing recipes, baking and doing product demos at Whole Foods.

Within three months of launching in stores, Simple Mills became the best-selling launch of mixes on Amazon, she said.

When asked what’s next for Simple Mills, Smith said “… we in general really just believe in taking all of these places in the grocery store where you see a lot of processed ingredients, a lot of ingredients you can’t pronounce, and also a lot of empty food. Food that has a lot of carbs and sugar and isn’t working very hard for you. We have a lot of ideas. Certainly, in the categories where we play and in other categories as well. And I just think there’s a lot of places in the grocery store where we can help make things easier and tastier.”

Farmers face organic food fraud charges

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Midwest farmers convicted of fraudulently selling $142 million of grain as organic. Photo by LilacDragonfly from Pexels

The conviction of five Midwestern U.S. farmers of selling non-organic grains as organic intensified growing concerns over organic food fraud.

John Burton, a farmer from Clarksdale, Missouri, pled guilty, Friday, May 10, and was convicted on one count of wire fraud for fraudulently selling $142 million in organic grain.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in a statement, Burton admitted that grain grown on non-organic fields was marketed and sold as organic along with the use of unapproved substances on certified organic grounds.

Ongoing investigation

Three additional farmers from Nebraska pled guilty and were convicted of one count of wire fraud in October 2018 as part of an earlier, broader probe by the United States Department of Agriculture – Office of Inspector General and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Tom Brennan, James Brennan, and Mike Potter, from Overton, Nebraska, all admitted to growing non-organic grain that they knew was being marketed and sold as organic.

According to the DOJ, from 2010 to 2017, each of the three farmers received more than $2.5 million for that grain.

All four plea deals are related to a case involving Randy Constant, owner of the grain brokerage firm, Jericho Solutions, located in Ossian, Iowa.

Constant, a resident of Chillicothe, Missouri, was convicted on December 20, 2018, of one count of wire fraud for fraudulently selling $142,433,475 worth of non-organic grain as organic.

According to the DOJ, Constant falsely told customers he sold grain grown on his certified organic fields in Nebraska and Missouri.

However, the grains were not organic because he either purchased them from other growers, sprayed certified organic fields with non-GMO substances, or mixed organic grain with the non-organic grain.

As part of his plea deal, Constant agreed to forfeit $128,190,128 in proceeds from the scheme.

The judge set sentencing for Constant, Tom Brennan, James Brennan, and Potter on August 16, 2019. Scheduled sentencing for Burton occurs after preparation of a presentence report, the DOJ says.

All five men face a maximum sentence of 20 years, a $250,000 fine, and up to three years of supervised release following any imprisonment.

Growing problem

A 2017 report by the Washington Post discovered weaknesses in the U.S. Agricultural Department’s ability to verify the chain-of-custody of supposed “organic” grains imported from Eastern Europe.

According to the paper, three shiploads, equating to “millions of pounds of ‘organic’ corn or soybeans,” entered the country during that period.

Those grains, designated as animal feed, have a direct impact on the authenticity of organic food. “Organic eggs, organic milk, organic chicken and organic beef are supposed to come from animals that consume organic feed, an added expense for farmers that contributes to the higher consumer prices on those items,” the Post says.

While a great deal of focus is on the import of fraudulent organic food, the conviction of the five Midwestern farmers indicates the problem is not just with imports but with domestic suppliers as well.

In a nod towards the problem, the Organic Trade Association recently rolled out a plan it had been developing for the past two years. Its Organic Fraud Prevention Solutions program is designed to fight fraud in the global system.

“Fraud in the global organic supply chain poses a significant threat to the integrity of the organic brand,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association, in a statement. “For the past two years, the Organic Trade Association has prioritized significant time and resources into organic fraud prevention solutions. We are fighting fraud on many fronts, including through the 2018 Farm Bill and through private sector initiatives. The more companies that join this industry-driven program, the stronger the organic supply chain will be.”

The organization says the program is not a label, and it does not involve certification or verification. It is merely a quality assurance program in which organic businesses can voluntarily enroll to help minimize or eliminate organic food fraud both inside and outside of the United States.harges

Natural Grocers celebrates 1 million customer loyalty members

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Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage is a specialty retailer of organic and natural groceries, body care products and dietary supplements.

DENVER – Organic and specialty retailer Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage recently announced a sweepstakes contest to celebrate its customer loyalty program {N}power, which is expected to surpass one million members this summer. The grand-prize winner of Natural Grocers’ 1 Millionth {N}power Member Sweepstakes will receive one year of free groceries.

{N}power launched in May 2015 offering Natural Grocers’ customers digital coupons, personalized offers, rewards, and other benefits. According to the company, the program has seen more than 50 percent growth in its membership in the last year alone.

“The program has grown steadily for two reasons,” said Natural Grocers Co-President Kemper Isely. “First, more people than ever are learning how to better take care of their bodies by eating organic and natural foods. Second, the {N}power program makes embracing a healthy lifestyle more affordable than ever with personalized offers, digital coupons, and rewards for purchases made.”

Additional 1 Millionth {N}power Member Sweepstakes prizes include:

  • Five second-place winners will win free groceries for six months.
  • 150 third-place winners will win a $50 Natural Grocers gift card.

Founded in Colorado in 1955, Natural Grocers has more than 3,500 employees and operates 152 stores in 19 states.

For more information, visit www.naturalgrocers.com/millionth.