July 2018 Issue
These Arkansas startups are shaking up their food-related industries
by Caleb Talley
Photography by Meredith Mashburn
In Arkansas, a number of food-related startups are seizing on a starving market dying to be served. The state is slowly creating an ecosystem for food innovation, and a handful of local entrepreneurs are taking the opportunity to carve themselves a place, one way or another, in this growing marketplace. Here are some of the startups taking their industries by storm.
Simkins Brothers’ Sweets
Simkins Brothers’ Sweets is a candy company founded in April of 2017 by brothers Austin and Quinn Simkins. Beginning with their grandmother’s recipe for “poppers,” chocolate-covered peanut butter sweets, the brothers have since expanded to offer customers treats that are both delicious and unique.
“My brother and I grew up making poppers with our grandma, Alice Ann,” says Quinn.
“During the holiday season,” Austin adds, “we would make as many as we could and give them to friends and family. Everyone always loved the taste. At the beginning of 2017, we had a family dinner where the idea came up about the potential to sell the poppers and start a business.”
And that’s what they did. With the success of their poppers, the brothers are preparing to launch two new products: Chirpies and Natural Way Peanut Butter.
Chirpies, according to Quinn, are chocolate-covered peanut butter treats made with cricket flour. “This is a product that is high in protein, vitamin B12, iron, and it still tastes delicious,” he says. “The Natural Way Peanut Butter is one of the only peanut butters sold that is made with olive oil.”
Their peanut butter treats come in four flavors: original, chocolate swirl, honey and bacon. “Bacon is great by itself,” says Quinn. “But when you combine the two, it makes for a great combination.”
The food industry is fertile ground for startups in Arkansas, and the Simkins are looking to take advantage by creating products that remind their customers of good times.
“People have ties to different recipes that they love and remind them of memorable times in their lives,” says Quinn.
“If companies are able to capture that feeling with a food product, then they can be very successful.”
Simkins Brothers’ Sweets was recently awarded more than $10,000 in an online pitch competition launched by Fayetteville-based Startup Junkie. Through hard work and creative marketing, the brothers have been able to grow their business and can be found on retailers’ shelves throughout their home region and online.
“We have strived to work harder and smarter to prove our worth,” says Austin, noting that being a young entrepreneur can be difficult because of perception. “You have to overcome the fact that people may not respect you because of your age. Believe in the vision that you have… Don’t be afraid to shoot for a dream just because a few people doubt you.”
Luncher, founded in Bentonville, is a food curator and delivery company on a mission to transform the way busy office workers do lunch. “Think of us as a virtual cafeteria with amazing food,” says founder Edwin Ortiz.
Luncher, through their website, offers their customers a variety of local food options, curated daily, and delivered with sophisticated logistics to provide a quality lunch experience for busy workers in the Northwest Arkansas region. Customers can find a meal on Luncher’s menu of the day and have it delivered directly to their office.
“After working in corporate America for six years and feeling the frustration of wasting an hour trying to get lunch, not to mention losing your parking spot and fighting long lines, we knew there had to be a better way,” says Ortiz.
Unlike other food delivery services, Luncher does not charge its customers a delivery fee. The company also works directly with the restaurants it features to help streamline operations.
“We are passionate about empowering hardworking employees and making their lives better,” he says. “We also want to make a difference in our community, so we partner with local restaurants and help them run more efficient operations.”
Ortiz encourages other would-be entrepreneurs to chase after their dreams, especially in the realm of food. “Food fuels the world, and Arkansas is no different,” he says. “The South has always been known for great food. It would be irresponsible to not make the most from it.”
He offers advice to those looking to launch their own business: “Focus on the customer first, focus on the customer always. Find the pain point and solve it in the most seamless way possible. And in the words of one of my favorite startups, RevUnit, ‘Build small, learn fast, iterate often.’”
Con Quesos & Juice Palm
Fayetteville’s Omar Kasim is making a name for himself in Northwest Arkansas with a pair of unique restaurants, Con Quesos and Juice Palm.
“At both Juice Palm and Con Quesos, we take a unique approach to ordinary menu items,” says Kasim. “Con Quesos features tacos that incorporate flavors from around the world, as well as an array of eclectic cheese dip flavors. Juice Palm’s health-driven menu provides guests with an avenue to a clean diet using only certified-organic ingredients with aesthetics that make you want to eat healthy.”
With both ventures, Kasim aims to provide his customers with a taste of something they might not otherwise find in the region. “I saw an opportunity to create unique restaurant concepts that you may see in a larger market and provide an experience that Northwest Arkansans would enjoy and transplants would be familiar with,” he says.
“Both concepts have a story that the entire restaurant is aligned from,” Kasim adds. “Cheese dip was invented in Arkansas, which is where the name Con Quesos comes from and is why we offer a variety of cheese dip flavors. Juice Palm is health-driven and sustainably focused, which is why we decided to become the first restaurant to have a certified-organic kitchen in the state… Experience extends beyond the food that you serve, so I try to be as aligned as I can with all of our decision-making.”
Food is fruitful for Arkansas entrepreneurs, and few know that better than Kasim. He believes there’s room for growth, seeing a state that is largely underserved. “Food brings people together. It is a necessity for any celebration; it is a defining piece of one’s culture,” he says. The food scene in Arkansas is relatively underserved. We have our standard restaurants, but there are still plenty of opportunities for unique and niche concepts to flourish.”
But carving out your place in the industry, he says, requires hard work, something he also knows a lot about.
“It’s very easy to talk about entrepreneurship, to read the latest Tim Ferriss book, or listen to a Gary V podcast,” he says. “But that doesn’t make you an entrepreneur. What makes you an entrepreneur is the ability to work relentlessly to make your vision come to fruition… No amount of talking or reading will be a sufficient substitute for work ethic.”
Uchooze Lunchbox is a fully customizable lunch box geared towards empowering children to make their own healthy choices. According to company CMO Rebecca Holgate, Uchooze Lunchbox provides parents with the tools needed to teach their children how to eat healthy while also giving them a choice as to what they want to eat.
“Parents spend three to five hours a week, on average, packing lunches that, for the most part, go uneaten,” says Holgate. “We are giving parents the tools to teach kids healthy eating habits and ensure they are actually eating their lunches.”
The company’s founder, Leslie Godwin, came up with the concept while struggling to get her own children to eat healthy. On a trip to China, she watched at a shop where parents let their children choose their school lunch for the day, and everyone came away pleased. Using that idea, she and her team have created a unique operation.
“Uchooze is currently the only lunch service that offers full customization in the central United States,” she says. “There’s a lot of research that proves kids eat healthier when you give them the power to choose. So, we tested the concept on our business. Our beta test has proven that Uchooze Lunchbox gets kids to eat healthier and save parents a lot of time.”
Holgate adds, “As the number of dual-career families grows, so will the need for goods and services that help save them time so they can focus on what’s most important to them. While parents want to save time in any way they can, they don’t want to sacrifice at the expense of their children’s well-being. Our goal is to give parents the tools needed to empower their kids to make healthy choices now in the hopes that those choices follow them into adulthood.”
Uchooze Lunchbox took home second place in the 2018 Governor’s Cup competition in the graduate-level division. The team, which also includes William Rockefeller, Daniel Maldonado and Tanya Welihindha, also won second place in a business plan competition at Tulane University. The company has won nearly $30,000 in prize money so far in 2018.
Uchooze Lunchbox is also a part of Little Rock’s Winrock International’s Delta I-Fund portfolio, which offers early stage entrepreneurs rigorous training and access to seed stage capital through IBERIABANK.
Good Eats Food Co.
Arkansas’ Good Eats Food Co. was started in 2015 by Trey Taylor and Matt Brown, who met while working at Sager Creek Vegetable Co. in Siloam Springs. At Good Eats Food Co., the pair work to provide retail and foodservice operators with “innovative” frozen vegetables and baked beans.
“We saw a true need for innovation in frozen vegetables and baked beans,” says Taylor. “The food industry is overcome with new trends that neither of these two categories were addressing. The actual brand names and products were developed using consumer and chef input to help shape the offerings.”
To date, the company has developed two brands: Ruthie’s Twisted Harvest frozen vegetables – which includes Mexican street corn and smashed cauliflower – and SER!OUS Bean Co. – which includes a variety of baked bean flavors. It’s that variety, Taylor says, that makes their company so unique.
Taylor and Brown recognize the opportunity to grow in the food industry, as individuals’ interest and concern for what they put in their bodies increases.
“We’re all increasingly interested in trying new foods and trends are evolving faster and faster each year,” says Taylor. “All of this change in the industry creates opportunity for new products. Startup companies inherently have the ability to move more quickly than large companies to address these new consumer needs.”
When starting a business in the food industry, the friends and co-workers say it’s critical to enjoy what you do and bring on knowledgeable teammates.
“Start small, then build in scale,” says Taylor. “Test and learn, test and learn… But pick an industry or product that is of high interest to you. You’re going to spend a lot of time working in it. So, it’s much easier if you love it.”
Brown adds, “If you don’t have a finance background, find someone with experience in that field to help you… At some point along the way, you will have to become very creative with how and when you allocate each and every dollar the company is bringing in. It’s very important to have a good grasp on this aspect of the business. I thank God for Trey every day.”
Visit armoneyandpolitics.com for more Arkansas startups.