Innovation at Work: Providing guidance for retail and small businesses

Go inside the kitchen where Jennifer Knox creates her unique spice blends. Video by Dave Olson

By Angie Hunt, News Service

NEVADA, Iowa – Jennifer Knox reaches for a jar of Roxy Taco seasoning and smiles as she starts talking about the inspiration behind the blend that she created as a baby shower gift for friends – who are fans of Mexican food – in honor of their daughter, Roxy.

As Knox pulls other jars from the boxes lining the shelves of the commercial kitchen inside her Nevada home, she launches into a story with a confession about mistakenly harvesting a neighbor’s rhubarb patch – thinking it was “alley rhubarb” – to make Saltlickers’ seasonal rhubarb sugar.

Yes, there’s a story for nearly every one of the 23 blends Knox has created and the two currently in development. Mixed in with her stories are recipes she samples at farmers’ markets and suggestions for adding her cocoa-chili powder blend in coffee or sprinkling her blend of homegrown chilies on fruit (before you wrinkle your nose, try it). In every story and recipe Knox shares, you feel the passion she has for creating seasoning blends that make customers smile and feel like a champion in the kitchen.

“When we hear from people that we made their Thanksgiving dinner, or that our blends give them the power to make every meal fantastic or get their kids to eat vegetables, that’s amazing,” Knox said. “It’s like our products help them be the cooks that they want to be.”

But without the guidance of programs at Iowa State University designed to help small businesses turn their innovative ideas into successful ventures, Knox’s spicy idea may have gone stale. The Small Business Development Center and Center for Industrial Research and Service at Iowa State offer services that have helped thousands of businesses across the state, creating an economic impact measured in the billions of dollars.

Iowa as a place to grow

Knox first started making blends in her tiny apartment in Brooklyn, New York, as gifts for friends and family. The blends were such a hit that a colleague pushed her to start selling the products. After making $3,000 at a holiday market, Knox realized it might be worth turning her hobby into a small business, and in 2011 Saltlickers was born.

At the time, it seemed there was just one “small” obstacle preventing Knox from scaling up her business. Recognizing the space constraints of her apartment, Knox’s now-husband, Collin, had a simple answer: Move to Iowa. Not only would she have space to create, but there would be room to grow her business as well as fresh ingredients for some of the blends.  

After making the move, Knox started looking for market opportunities and applied to be a vendor at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market. She was thrilled to be accepted that first year, but says her excitement soon turned to fear after talking with other vendors at the market. It was through those conversations that she learned about state licensing and federal requirements for food manufacturers, and she quickly realized her tiny apartment was not the only obstacle to overcome.

Unsure of her next step, Knox contacted the SBDC (Small Business Development Center) Iowa at Iowa State University. Knox, who’s also an associate teaching professor of English at Iowa State, was familiar with SBDC, but not clear on everything the center offered. She says she would not be in business 10 years later had she not made that call.

“We’re so small that it would be unthinkable to still be in business for 10 years without the support that Iowa State has given us,” Knox said. “At every step we come to that seems insurmountable, there’s been somebody there from Iowa State to help us out.”

Jennifer Knox standing in her kitchen holding a box filled with a variety of spice jars

Jennifer Knox displays the variety of Saltlickers seasoning blends that she creates. Photo by Christopher Gannon

A kitchen-table conversation

That call to SBDC connected Knox with the many Iowa State resources available to small businesses and entrepreneurs, and became the impetus for her transition from cottage industry to food manufacturer. And at every step and challenge in that transition, Brenda Martin has been there to guide Knox along the way.

Martin, workforce programs director for Iowa State’s Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS), was working directly with food industry clients when she first met Knox. Martin saw the potential in Saltlickers, but was upfront about the requirements for registering a business with the Food and Drug Administration. It would take hard work, but CIRAS would be there to provide support.

“There is really nothing like CIRAS in the state of Iowa. We provide research-based education and we coach from a perspective that is based on fact,” Martin said. “We help food businesses understand testing and other resources they’re going to need. We’re very holistic and help them make the connection to resources throughout the process.”

Knox still shakes her head in disbelief when talking about how she’s benefited from that holistic approach. She remembers Martin taking the time to come to her home and sit down at the kitchen table to develop a plan. CIRAS also connected Knox with Iowa State food scientists for product consultation and testing at a price affordable for small businesses.

“We could not afford to do this or to have as many spice blends without this testing,” Knox said. “They’ve also helped us streamline the process, again at a price that we can afford to stay in business.”

While CIRAS generally works with established companies, a federal grant allowed the center to pilot a food safety cohort that small businesses could join to get help with food safety plans. Martin says the training program generated positive results for small food producers, and also highlighted the amount of public financial support it takes to help (see sidebar for economic benefits). When consulting with any business or manufacturer, Martin says CIRAS provides education and resources focused on leadership, growth, productivity, workforce and technology.

“We want to help clients be a well-run company. That includes understanding margins, costs, how to do it right, and having a long-term strategy to grow the company, so it’s not just a flavor of the month. We’re in this for the long-term,” Martin said.

Innovation is the way forward

Iowa State’s commitment to supporting business and industry also helps strengthen Iowa communities and local economies. Lisa Shimkat, state director of America’s SBDC Iowa, says her team works closely with economic development groups and other Small Business Administration partners, such the Women’s Business Center and SCORE, to develop innovative programs to reach underserved markets and rural areas.

Rural Business Innovators, a customized start-up program for rural entrepreneurs, and Iowa SBDC’s portable photo studio, which helps entrepreneurs with digital marketing, are just two examples. As SBDC continues to find new ways to serve its clients, so too must small businesses. Shimkat says if there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that it forced businesses to do things differently.

“There is a new energy for a lot of small businesses. They’re doing more on social media and partnering with other businesses to support each other,” Shimkat said. “For a small business to be innovative, they have to do something new – a new way of selling, a new way of hiring or a new way of existing today.”

Partnering with specialty shops across the state has allowed Knox to get her seasoning blends in markets she might not otherwise reach and help grow Saltlickers’ loyal following. She says understanding what motivates a customer to try her blends – as opposed to buying a name brand at the grocery store – and then come back for more is critical for growth. Knox expected customers to be drawn to the versatility and variety of blends she offers, but she’s found they really appreciate a product with quality ingredients and no preservatives.

It’s one of the many lessons Knox shares with other entrepreneurs and small business owners. In return for all the help she’s received, Knox pays it forward by speaking at workshops sponsored by Iowa State’s Pappajohn Center for Entrepreneurship and other networking events. She wants others to know it’s OK to make mistakes and that they don’t need to have all the answers when starting a business.

“When people hear the word ‘entrepreneur’ they probably visualize a superhero-type of person who has all the answers. But in our case, we knew nothing, except that cooking, herbs and spices fascinated us,” Knox said. “More than any skill we've picked up along the way, this business has taught us how to recognize people who can help us grow. And most of those people are right down the road at Iowa State.”

With centers across the state, SBDC is positioned to help business owners with every step from starting, to growing, to transitioning their business. Shimkat says the SBDC team spends a lot of time “out in the field” to meet with and understand the needs of business owners. While many reach out to SBDC at a time of crisis, Shimkat encourages businesses to also reach out when things are going well.

“Think about it like a dental appointment or going to the doctor for a checkup. Businesses need to do that too,” Shimkat said. “They need to get a business health checkup to see where they’re at, how things are going and where there may be some potential warning signs that they’re not seeing.”

It takes a village

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, more than 7,900 new establishments opened in Iowa between March 2019 and March 2020. During that same time, just over 7,675 businesses closed. Shimkat says being a small business owner is hard, and it’s important for a community to support and rally around local businesses.

Creating champions of small business is at the heart of the Iowa Retail Initiative’s (IRI) mission. Lisa Bates, interim assistant director for Iowa State Extension and Outreach’s Community and Economic Development unit, says IRI Champions sessions help community decision makers and small business supporters assess existing and future retail need, cultivate community connections and evaluate retail district amenities.

The sessions often bring together champions from several small communities in a county to identify opportunities for collaboration and how to leverage resources, such as grants to improve building facades. Bates says IRI’s Snapshot program also helps local leaders collect and analyze data to drive decisions and improvements for their retail districts.

“We need to focus on our small businesses across the state and understand how important and impactful they are for local economies,” Bates said. “Authenticity in our communities really comes from independent retailers, and that’s where IRI really tries to focus in on what we can do to support retailers and what the community can do to support them.”