By listening to its customers, Midwest Pantry has helped more than 400 area food businesses flourish
Chad Gillard stumbled into the food business by accident. He was running a concert stage at an Irish Fair with a friend and realized he couldn’t get a proper scone or potatoes there. So the next year he and his family set up a booth selling those two disparate food items. The booth proved a need for Irish food at the fair, and with an expanded menu and some learning along the way, Chad kept this up for a decade.
Today, Chad, a veteran Studio/E member, is a senior business analyst at GoKart Labs and co-founder of Midwest Pantry, a company that hosts food-related tradeshows, education series and events in the name of helping local food businesses flourish. Midwest Pantry is a membership-based company that food entrepreneurs can join to access benefits and support, but it hasn’t always looked like that. Through learning and pivoting, Chad and co-founder Zoie Glass made adjustments until they got the model down just right. We talked with Chad about his successes and failures in the food industry and how he acts upon what he learns along the way.
Studio/E: How did Midwest Pantry come about?
Chad: It started at a food and wine show, where Zoie and I split one booth. She sold pepper jams that I demoed with aebleskiver (Danish pastries). The following year we added on and by year four we had the entire Kirby Puckett wing at the Twins stadium full of food industry locals. We realized it was great that everyone came together so we talked to the show organizers and they let us extend tickets to wholesale buyers, which turned out to be successful. We then did a pop-up show at Cooks of Crocus Hill and, based on feedback and requests for additional local products, we’ve continued to host what is now the largest local-only trade show in the country: the Midwest Pantry Local Food and Gift Trade Show.
Studio/E: What’s an Acting-Learning-Building moment you’ve experienced?
Chad: We initially built Midwest Pantry around a member-based infrastructure, but we came to find out members didn’t see value in this model. We learned this by asking and sending a survey, which is a practice we keep today. So we changed it to a fee-based model and built from there. Another example is our happy hours, which used to be casual and have no agenda. Guests said it was sometimes hard to find things to talk about so we took that feedback and tested a meetup — a networking evening with 15-minute topics. We recently learned some people couldn’t make evenings, so we just started offering a morning meetup. We decided if our members aren’t finding value, we shouldn’t be doing it.
Studio/E: Midwest Pantry is back to a membership-based model. How did that happen?
Chad: Now that we’ve been in the business for longer and know people within the community, we’re able to better articulate our value and we have an arsenal of assets to be able to justify that. And now members understand the value in the model.
Studio/E: How did you get over the fear of pivoting?
Chad: We’ve always understood the importance of learning and we weren’t afraid to act. We talk about that with everything we do. We tell people, “This is how we think it will be valuable to you, but we don’t know. We’ll figure it out and keep learning.” You can’t be afraid to do something.
Studio/E: How does your desire statement [see Navigator of the Month sidebar] show up?
Chad: I love connecting people, but I always make sure it’s beneficial to both parties. That’s where my passion is: seeking out the win-win. I try to be specific as to why meeting is beneficial for both parties.
Studio/E: How do you manage being a dad, husband, entrepreneur and employee?
Chad: I have an amazing wife who handles a lot of the logistical stuff at home. It’s crazy but possible to juggle all of those things. For my day job I help digital startups, and Midwest Pantry helps food startups. There’s an overlap and I’m able to bring experience from one industry into the other. They’re mutually beneficial.
Studio/E: What advice can you give to aspiring local food startups?
- Get involved. You’ll learn so much faster by talking to people in the local food community who have done this. Expect to learn things you don’t know you don’t know. You think you know how to make jelly, but you don’t know how to make jelly for millions of people. The community can help you.
- Just do it. This is the hardest job you’ll ever love. It’s the coolest thing to have someone you don’t know come up and tell you how much they love feeding their family with something you’ve made. People who love to cook love feeding people, and it’s worth it to just do it.
- Be open to constant learning. You’ll never stop learning — it’s a constant process. If you find out you’re not doing something right, you’ve got to fix it. Learn and tweak constantly.
The local food community is blossoming because of Midwest Pantry — which has helped more than 400 local food businesses grow — and much of the success can be attributed to Chad’s openness to learning and bravery about acting upon it.
Nate Garvis and Tom Wiese are founding partners of Studio/E. They are both Senior Fellows at the Lewis Institute’s Social Innovation Lab at Babson College, as well as co-owners of Earn Influence, a consulting firm that helps its cool clients profitably travel into the unknown with clarity and confidence.