In 2012 Meg Barnhart, founder and co-creator of the zen of slow cooking, wanted to create a business that could employ individuals with learning challenges - adults like her son, Doug.
When she started slow cooking in 2006 to ease her mom-guilt and get a healthy dinner on the table, she never imagined the slow cooker would be a vehicle for change. With her vision in place, she began looking for a partner to help turn her dream into a reality..
Her friend Joanie called a few months later to say, “I met a young mom named Jane McKay, I think she's the person you’ve been searching for." Jane had just moved to Chicago from the UK and was developing recipes and writing for a local food artisan.
When they met a few weeks later it was clear that they were meant to build Meg’s dream together.
Phil, 9, Doug, 7, & Lucy, 5 in 2003
drawings of Meg & Jane 2012 - the partnership! By Lily, aged 5
With Jane’s food writing background, starting the blog made sense.
In the Fall of 2012, they launched the zen of slow cooking food blog sharing Meg’s passion for helping people find a little more Zen in the kitchen with Jane’s desire to create whole food recipes for the slow cooker. As their subscribers grew in numbers, drawn by their contemporary twist on slow cooking, Meg and Jane knew they were onto something.
Using their most widely searched recipes coupled with customer requests, they created even more simplicity for the home cook and debuted a series of gourmet inspired spice blends at the Lake Forest Farmer’s Market in the Fall of 2013. Each tin of single-use spices featured a recipe and a shopping list. To their delight, they sold out of tins in the first week, and started receiving email order after the market closed for the summer. By year end they had sold over 1,000 blends.
Opening day at the market
In September of 2014 they launched their online store to make purchasing their Zen blends more accessible.
With their Slow Cooker Spice Blends in production Meg and Jane turned their attention to the employment model they were seeking and met with Planet Access Company (PAC). By now Jane was blending and packaging more than she could handle so they turned to PAC for help. While Jane remained in the kitchen creating the blends they were then shipped to PAC to take care of the time-consuming tinning, labelling and heat-sealing process. (PAC provides training and employment for adults with developmental disabilities and is located in Des Plaines, Illinois.)
Zen team member at PAC
With the debut of their Zen blends Meg’s dream slowly started to take shape. Each time someone purchased one of their blends they made a contribution to their slow cooking initiative, a "Drishti Donation - where insight meets action.” They created a visual recipe and a video tutorial for adults who are non-readers. They also taught a workshop about the simplicity and safety of slow cooking to a group of young adults with autism and donated a slow cooker for their community kitchen.
In 2015, Meg and Jane started teaching cooking classes at a local organic farm and were accepted as Member Candidates into the Specialty Food Association receiving excellent reviews on the Zen blends. As their wholesale business expanded they redesigned the packaging of the blends with their talented designer, Linda Cassady. This made them more eye-catching and more importantly made them easier to package for our packaging partners at Planet Access Company.
2016 has been a particularly exciting year for the business. In February they reached the finals of Chicago’s Next Best Food product competition (sponsored by Peapod) receiving rave reviews from food writer/critic Kevin Pang. After the competition Peapod’s VP of Merchandising invited them to co-brand two slow cooking meal kits which debuted in June.
Television Debut and New Meal Kit
With the need to expand production they ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise the necessary funds to move from our test kitchen in Evanston to a co-packer in Waukegan.
(Jane blending her 9,000th blend)
The newly packaged Slow Cooker Spice Blends were then approved by Whole Foods Market and coupled with new distribution partner at Fortune Gourmet the Zen team are expanding their wholesale business throughout the Midwest.
In 2017, we are honored to receive a sofi AWARD (specialty outstanding food innovation) for our Sichuan Whole Spice Infusion.
We look forward to you joining our journey!