Just one day before her 29th birthday, Valerie Jennings received an early present.
Just one day before her 29th birthday, Valerie Jennings received an early present.
Her all-natural granola product, Hippie Chow, had landed a shelf spot in yet another retailer: Nature’s Pantry at 19019 E. 28th St. South in Independence. Nature’s Pantry now joins about 25 other retailers that carry the less-than-a-year-old Hippie Chow, but this one is especially important.
While Jennings lives in Lenexa, Kan., the Independence Regional Ennovation Center has allowed her entrepreneurial drive to flourish, all while adding new job growth numbers to Independence’s employment base. Since December, the Ennovation Center – located out of the rehabilitated Independence Regional Health Center in western Independence – has provided kitchen space for Jennings’ business.
Hippie Chow got its official start in summer 2010, but Jennings’ motivation to begin her own business started more than a decade ago.
From an early age, Jennings said, she was interested in “doing her own thing.” At 16, she and a couple of friends started a business painting houses in the summer.
But her entrepreneurial spirit took several detours along the way. As a freshman at Missouri State University, Jennings majored for one semester in psychology before switching to finance. She had asked herself what kind of jobs she could land post-college with such a degree. “I could be a banker,” Jennings reassured herself.
So, in 2003, she graduated summa cum laude with a major in finance and a minor in economics. Jennings then applied and was accepted to law school at Washington University in St. Louis.
She lasted about one month, Jennings said, laughing.
She had grown up in the small town of Holden, Mo., and she attributes her law school dropout to the competitive nature at Washington University in St. Louis and the culture shock of living in a major city.
Jennings relocated to the Kansas City area, landing a job in Overland Park, Kan., at Midland Loan Services. Jennings said she still clung to her desire of starting a business, though those feelings were “more muted because I was having a reasonable degree of success in a corporate environment, climbing the ladder, getting promotions and raises.
“It felt pretty comfortable, but at the same time, I was always sort of looking for the idea that would allow me to be an entrepreneur.”
Jennings had several of such ideas until one finally left its mark in 2009.
As “the food person” in her household, Jennings does the grocery shopping and cooking for herself and her boyfriend, Independence native and Truman High School graduate Joe Parrish. By mid-2009, Jennings had taken an interest in what ingredients went into their food, and after reviewing the ingredients of her boyfriend’s afternoon snack at work, she said she wasn’t too impressed.
Page 2 of 4 - Instead, she created an all-natural granola snack. Friends, co-workers and family members caught on, and Jennings’ boyfriend suggested she sell the product.
The timing wasn’t quite right, though. In her professional career, Jennings was involved in a major bankruptcy transaction. She worked long hours and frequently traveled. Phone calls came at all hours of the day – sometimes as late as 10 p.m. – and Jennings had to answer.
The work was steady and busy enough, but Jennings said she still questioned whether she would be satisfied long-term.
Then came the tipping point, Jennings said. She daydreamed about what she could call her granola product, if she actually went through with selling it.
The name fit. According to Jennings’ Internet research, no one else had thought of the concept, playing off of the snack name Puppy Chow and the fact that granola is often connected with “hippie” types.
She had to go for it now.
“I have to preface it with I am the least creative person you’ll ever meet,” Jennings said. “It’s the one flash of creativity I’ve ever had in my whole life. I was like, ‘Oh, this is too good; I have to do something with this.’”
Step one: Seek professional advice in starting a business. The first piece involved Jennings’ creation of a business plan. In late 2009, Jennings sought advice from the Kansas Small Business Development Center at Johnson County Community College. Several months later, she completed a FastTrac business course within the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Jennings also did an independent study course while earning her master’s in business administration at Rockhurst University.
Hippie Chow officially launched in May 2010 at the Overland Park farmers market. Less than a year later, Hippie Chow is carried at more than 25 retailers, ranging from grocery stores on both sides of the metropolitan state line to the gourmet food retailer Dean & Deluca stores in Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Charlotte, N.C.; Leawood, Kan.; and two locations in New York.
Even with her background in business and the steps Jennings took to make it happen, she said she is still surprised at Hippie Chow’s success in its short lifetime.
“It’s so exciting because I think a lot of it has to do with the name. There is a certain buzz around it,” Jennings said. “I am always completely amazed if I’m in a public place and somehow it comes up and a complete stranger says, ‘Oh, Hippie Chow! I’ve heard of that.’ To me, that is what it’s all about.”
In early 2010, Jennings learned of the Independence Regional Ennovation Center. One of the main obstacles that food entrepreneurs must first overcome is locating a licensed kitchen space. Because the Ennovation Center kitchen space was still under construction, Jennings initially rented space out of the community kitchen at the Douglas County Fairgrounds in Lawrence, Kan.
Page 3 of 4 - The Ennovation Center kitchen space is rented for $25 an hour, and unless they reach out for a licensed kitchen at a faith-based organization or elsewhere, food entrepreneurs don’t have much of a choice for kitchen space in the Kansas City region, according to Tom Lesnak, president of Independence Economic Development.
Jennings agrees. In mid-January, she attended the Fancy Food Show, a trade show for the specialty food industry, in San Francisco. The question that came up repeatedly in classes on how to start a fooad business, according to Jennings, was, “I can’t find a kitchen. Do you have any suggestions?”
“I feel like Kansas City and my business, personally, are very fortunate to have that facility in our community,” Jennings said. “It’s not common, and I think that’s a hindrance to many food entrepreneurs.”
Jennings officially left her full-time, 8-to-5 job on Jan. 1, but her work continues. As her own boss, Jennings will often ask herself, “When does the day start, and when does the day end?”
She holds no regrets of her six years at Midland Loan Services. Jennings said she spent a significant amount of time there in negotiations, a skill that has proven helpful while reaching out to grocery store buyers and others she hopes will carry Hippie Chow.
“I’ve been sitting on the other side of the table with someone who’s like, 30 years older than me, and making 10 times as much money as me, and having a negotiation about a real estate transaction – and it’s all right,” Jennings said.
Her goal for 2011 is to solidify Hippie Chow’s footprint among Kansas City area retailers. While Jennings said she is proud of Hippie Chow’s place in Dean & Deluca stores across the country, she doesn’t see herself actively soliciting business outside of Kansas City – yet.
“I don’t see the product as ever being something you find in every single grocery store,” Jennings said. “That’s not what Hippie Chow is about. It’s about being selective and picking the right retailers that are going to be a good fit and appealing to the customer demographic that can appreciate how we’re doing things a bit differently.”
Peace. Love. Granola.
It’s a handmade product that is likely more expensive, “but we think it’s worth it. It’s about finding the people and the places that are going to support that mission.”
Jennings is the owner and the leader of Hippie Chow, but she also leans on an accountant for payroll questions and a creative team in designing the Hippie Chow branding package.
She makes the sales calls on Mondays, creates the product on Tuesdays, and by Wednesday, Jennings herself is delivering Hippie Chow to grocery stores. To date, Jennings said, she hasn’t had to take out a small business loan, adding that she is putting that step off as long as possible. While still working her full-time job at Midland Loan Savings, Jennings built up some savings and invested money into her idea to get it off the ground.
Page 4 of 4 - “Personally, I’m hoping to put it off maybe even as long as to the point when we need our own facility,” she said.
Though Jennings lives in Kansas, Hippie Chow is counted as new job growth in Independence since she must obtain a city of Independence business license along with required health permits, Lesnak said. To date, the Ennovation Center kitchen space includes five tenants and about 40 potential tenants have applied.
Hippie Chow is a model for food entrepreneurship, Lesnak said.
“She’s done it the exact right way,” he said. “She’s really been a great inspiration for a lot of our incubator clients.”
The challenge often facing food entrepreneurs is that they’re great cooks, but they are unsure of how to market their product, according to Lesnak. He said Jennings mastered the marketing stumbling point early in her business. Because of that, Jennings will speak at an Ennovation Center workshop in March, sharing what’s worked and what hasn’t with others.
“She knows what her focus is,” Lesnak said. “She’s already got her milestones in place and she really knows where she wants to be and when she wants to get there.”
Because of the Ennovation Center is a “business incubator,” the goal is for Jennings and other clients to eventually “graduate” and then lease or rent their own building and equipment – hopefully in Independence or Eastern Jackson County, Lesnak said.
“Ultimately, we’d love businesses to grow to the point that they are investing equipment and hiring people outside of the incubator,” he said.
Jennings’ aspirations started at a young age, though she continuously talked herself out of her desires in starting a business. A common misconception among those with an entrepreneurial spirit, she said, is that you must have this grand invention, this one-of-a-kind idea that’s never been done.
“That’s not true. What sets a business apart or makes a business successful is the idea, but it’s also how you run the business,” Jennings said. “Certainly, there are other granola products on the market, but Hippie Chow is different because of all the other parts of the story.”