by BRIDGET AYMAR
Tomme Beevas, ’11 CEMBA, founded Pimento Jamaican Kitchen to share the rich flavors of his hometown with U.S. diners. The thriving restaurant started small: In his first year in the Carlson Executive MBA Program, Beevas started towing his grill to community events and serving free samples of food prepared from his grandmother Babylou’s time-tested recipes. His classmates often volunteered to help him serve food—and Pimento quickly built a grassroots following.
One year later, the Food Network discovered Pimento and cast Beevas to appear on the reality TV show Food Court Wars. He won the competition, resigned from his position as director of global community involvement at Cargill, and opened his first restaurant in Burnsville, Minnesota.
While it wasn’t easy to retire from a corporate career that he loved, the burgeoning entrepreneur doesn’t regret the move.
Diners can now find Pimento at events throughout Minnesota, at the flagship location in Burnsville, and at its newest restaurant in Minneapolis. As the business grows, Beevas is employing principles he learned from his professors to ensure he scales up without sacrificing quality or service.
“Our goal is to take Pimento national, if not global. Thanks to Carlson, I’ve sharpened my business acumen and now I’m able to apply that to being smart in how fast we grow. We want to grow in a sustainable, measured way,” he says.
At his Carlson Executive MBA Class of 2011 reunion this year, Beevas showed the classmates who helped him serve food years prior that he’d achieved his goal.
“One of my proudest moments was being able to hang out with my cohort and for them to come see how my dream happened five years later,” he says.
Jeff Weltzin, ’90 BSB, says sometimes the best opportunities are what other people may find boring. To many, flour could be put in that category. It’s a baking staple and not that enticing. But Weltzin, the vice-president of sales for the Stafford County Flour Mills Co. of Hudson, Kansas, doesn’t see it that way. “I’m in the business that puts food on the table,” he says. “It is pretty exciting to be a part of it during a time when increased interest in specialty and high-quality flours for cooking and baking is getting traction in the consumer market.”
Weltzin, who initially came to the University of Minnesota to be a history major, quickly shifted gears when he saw what the Carlson School had to offer. After graduation, he found a position at Cargill. “I graduated from college thinking I’m going to work downtown at the Grain Exchange and wear a suit and tie all day,” he says. “I was told to get in my car, I’m going to western Kansas.” He worked out of Wichita for a few years and was later transferred to Utah when Cargill bought several flour mills from Pillsbury. He was later hired by ConAgra to move into the sales side of things in its flour milling division, pulling up stakes and ending up for a time in both Denver and Omaha.
He left in 1995 to start his own marketing company for Stafford County Flour Mills as well as becoming as investor in the ownership of the mill itself—and ended up back where he started, western Kansas. Since then, he invested in another mill in western Canada, Prairie Flour Mills Ltd. “Each mill is unique, they do different kinds of wheat and different types of products,” he says. They are also independent, two of the last remaining independent flour mills in North America.
“There are little to no competitive advantages of economies of scale in milling,” he says. “So, if you make a quality product, manage your cost structure, you can compete against anyone else out there.”
It also pays to diversify. The explosion of baking and food coverage in print and online has piqued consumer interest to learn about and discover more types of flour to use in what they’re making. Also, demographic changes in the U.S. and Canada are driving a demand for different types of flour.
“By not being as large as some milling companies, it has allowed us to hand-select certain quality wheat varieties right off the field that we know will perform well for the changing food trends and demand both in the kitchen and in the bakeries,” Weltzin says. “So while we all consume roughly 140 pounds of flour every year in all the foods we eat, we appreciate that consumers, food companies, and bakeries are now realizing that all flours are not the same.”
Consumer demand is affecting the flour supply chain. “I think food trend-wise, there are three big things: lifestyle choices, what a consumer’s underlying values are, and health benefits,” he says. “One or all of them are the drivers that make their decisions on the shelves.”
In the past, manufacturers, growers, and farmers were always seeking to maximize their yields. This attitude came out of the depression in the 1930s. The agricultural landscape changed and growers needed to get as much out of their land as possible. “Now the consumer is making the decision,” Weltzin says. “What you are seeing now are food trends that migrate toward desirable benefits that consumers want in the product they are buying. But it also has to taste good.”
For example, much of western Kansas 40 years ago was red wheat. However the red wheats are more bitter and darker in appearance which were pushbacks for children who do not want to eat a whole wheat product, Weltzin says. Now there is a shift to white wheat, which is naturally sweeter in taste, and lighter in appearance. “We produce a lot of white wheat flour that goes to school districts all over the country.”
Weltzin feels flour is anything but boring. “I’ve been in this business for 25 years and I really enjoy it. I get up in the morning and I’m happy to know I’m a part of something that shows up on the table each and every day.”
After being a partner sponsor of the Carlson International HR Case Competition for the last three years, Land O’Lakes has taken the reigns as lead sponsor this year. The annual competition challenges student teams from around the world to present innovative solutions to a live business case in the area of international human resource management. A preliminary written round took place in September and the final, live presentation round is scheduled for November.
Kimberly Wirka, a human resources director for Land O’Lakes, says the company sponsors the competition because it places a great deal of importance in supporting and nurturing talented students who will later move into leadership positions and positively influence the future of human resources. “By sponsoring the case competition, we stay connected and we show our support for the HRIR program at the Carlson School,” she says. “We’re excited to present a challenging case to the domestic and international teams and are anticipating some creative solutions and ideas to real business issues that we face.”
The case competition is not the only HR connection Land O’Lakes has to the Carlson School. The company actively recruits summer interns and full-time hires. “The talent coming out of the HRIR program is exceptional and an important feeder into our HR talent pool,” Wirka says.
Leaving the realm of HR for a moment, it would be remiss not to mention Land O’Lakes and its foundation’s 2014 commitment of $25 million to University of Minnesota academics and Gopher Athletics. Out of this substantial sum, $2.5 million was allocated to an endowed Land O’Lakes Chair in Marketing at the Carlson School, a position now held by Professor Kathleen Vohs.
Wirka, who has been growing her career at Land O’Lakes over the past 15 years, from HR manager to now HR director, has even deeper ties to the Carlson School—she graduated from the HRIR program in 1998. Now, she’s on the front lines in finding that next generation of HR talent. “One of the most rewarding parts of my job is leading our graduate talent internship and full-time program, called Pathways. It’s a chance for me to stay connected to the Carlson School and to develop and mentor future HR leaders.”
Sarah Pritzker, ’16 MBA, always envisioned herself launching a food-centric start-up. As a former competitive cyclist, she strived to introduce products that provide better nutrition for athletes. When she started the Carlson MBA program, she received the Sands Fellowship—a $5,000 award that funds select students to pursue ventures with positive impacts on society—to develop the business idea.
But in the second year of her MBA, Pritzker changed course. During an education abroad excursion in India, she sampled a local food that inspired her to rethink snacking: the puffed lotus seed is a food with similar taste and texture to popcorn, but with twice the protein, and zero the fat. Inspired by the discovery, she founded Karmic Kitchens to introduce puffed lotus seeds to U.S. consumers through a socially and environmentally responsible supply chain.
“We’re starting to see a shift away from potato chips and candy toward healthier snack options,” says Pritzker. “Karmic Kitchens is founded on the idea that consumers want wholesome food, and they want to know the story of where their food comes from.”
She hopes to see Karmic Kitchens products on shelves at national retailers soon. The inaugural product, Lotus Pops, will be available in farmers markets and for order online by year’s end. Pritzker views this first launch as an opportunity to learn about consumers’ preferences, and refine the company’s offerings.