Sustaining in a shed days to non-tasting online parties, Tastefully Simple has thrived, survived into its 25th year
Alexandria-based food business celebrates the highs and lows leading up to its 25th anniversary
Jill Blashack Strahan founded a business in 1995 in a shed with no running water, packing orders on a pool table in the town of Villard. By the end of that calendar year, she hoped to hire seven salespeople to help her out.
Today, 25 years later, Tastefully Simple is a multi-million-dollar business with thousands of sales consultants nationwide and 75 employees working from its Alexandria headquarters, but that growth didn’t happen overnight.
Buttering up an idea
As a dairy farmer’s daughter, Blashack Strahan said she didn’t have big dreams, but she was determined. By age 23, she owned Jill’s Grill in her hometown.
She started selling gift baskets and hosted open house tasting events for the holidays. After closing her store, Blashack Strahan was asked to bring her baskets to Alexandria’s annual Holiday Crafters' Tour.
She brought five themed gift baskets along with seven individual products separate from the collections that people could taste. That weekend, Blashack Strahan sold about a third of her average annual profit in two days.
As she was paging through an entrepreneur magazine one night, Blashack Strahan noticed the cover highlighted those who became millionaires before turning 40, and one of the featured businesses became successful by hosting home parties.
That was her “ding ding” moment to start Tastefully Simple. Blashack Strahan realized people wanted convenient food, not gift baskets.
Blashack Strahan was aware of the significance her business could have months before she hosted her first tasting party in 1995 when she sketched out a five-year plan.
Her goal was to hire seven salespeople by the end of the first year, 30 the second and 100 the third.
“Once you start doubling or tripling on those bigger numbers, it just snowballs,” she said.
When Blashack Strahan finished her projections, she realized she could be managing $11 million by 2000.
She got up from her computer, walked to the kitchen and stood in a corner nook between the stove and refrigerator. In shock, Blashack Strahan grabbed a pack of graham crackers and a slab of Land O’ Lakes butter, lathering each cracker and sticking them in her mouth.
“It was panic,” Blashack Strahan said. “But I finally came to the conclusion that if I could grow an $11-million company, I could run an $11-million company.”
Bypassing regret and taking a risk
When she started Tastefully Simple, around two-thirds of the money was taken out on a loan.
“We didn’t have money to put into this business,” Blashack Strahan said. “That’s kinda what entrepreneurs do. You figure it out, you bootstrap it.”
Blashack Strahan said taking this big step was scary, but she asked herself if she would regret not doing it.
Her brother died in a fire in his 20s, and she teared up nearly 30 years later recalling how this tragic event has shaped her mindset.
“I started to live differently,” she said. “I started to live with intention, and I didn’t know at the time, but I look back now and remember thinking, ‘Would I regret this? Would I regret that I didn’t at least try?’ So, that’s always been my mantra.”
When the business’ five-year mark rolled around in 2000, Blashack Strahan had forgotten about her original projection from 1995. She set a different goal for $10 million in sales by the end of the fifth year.
In 2001, it dawned on her that Tastefully Simple had passed the original $11-million mark while she stood in the same corner where she had consumed the buttered graham crackers five years prior.
“I didn’t really have time to feel anything,” she said. “You just kinda put your head down and ran hard and fast.”
Enduring the hard years
Tastefully Simple’s peak sales year hit $143 million in 2008 before the company experienced consistent decline from 2009 to 2018.
In-home tasting parties decreased. Tastefully Simple sales programs grew more complicated. Team sizes and spending were out of control.
Because of all Blashack Strahan had invested personally and professionally, she said it was difficult to watch sales go down each year.
One night, with tears in her eyes, she reminded herself of the worst thing that could happen.
“If I lose everything financially, I still have an amazing life,” she said.
The financial boat had many holes in it, Blashack Strahan said, so choosing which ones to plug first to make the boat stay afloat proved to be hard choices.
“A lot of people told her to close the doors, but she didn’t,” Tastefully Simple consultant Sheri Friederichs said. “She’ll do whatever it takes.”
From 2014 to 2017, the Tastefully Simple team was cut from 350 employees down to 75. Expenses were cut by $19 million by the end of 2018.
“It’s like letting your family go. It’s hard to tell those people goodbye,” she said. “I told the team, ‘This is happening because we still want to be here, and if we don’t make these choices, we won’t still be here.’”
Adapting for the future
After a long rough patch, Tastefully Simple seems to be picking up steam again. Revenue has been up the last two years, and unlike most businesses, sales increased once COVID-19 hit. Consultants shifted from tasting parties to virtual platforms, such as Facebook groups and Zoom calls.
For in-person events, consultants prepare a spread of food using Tastefully Simple products. But when transferring online, people don’t need to make the food or clean their house. Instead, they post photos, promote ideas and share recipes.
Sheri Friederichs joined the Tastefully Simple team as a consultant 22 years ago. When the stay-at-home order began and group gatherings were limited to 10 people, Friederichs realized she’d have to try a different method for sales.
“Parties probably aren’t going to happen for a while, so let’s try this online thing,” she said to herself.
Friederichs sends out at least 100 Facebook invites to form a group, plans on at least 50 accepting the invite and makes around 20 sales as a result. Within the group, she schedules multiple posts each day to talk about features and benefits of the products.
“In business, you have to swing and stay with the times,” Friederichs said.
To celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, Tastefully Simple is bringing back popular products, hosting its first virtual national conference for consultants and launching a new website.
If the annual conference would’ve been held in Minneapolis as planned, Blashack Strahan said they were expecting 350 attendees. But for this year’s virtual conference, over 1,200 consultants registered.
“When you can reach quadruple the number of people, that too is such a blessing,” she said.
This year, consultant productivity is up 25%, sales are up 62% and nearly 4,000 new consultants have joined the team.
“Would anybody not survive because they don’t have beer bread? Probably not, but it sure brings joy to people’s lives,” Blashack Strahan said.