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Chicago Women's Company Mixes Slow Cooking With Social Good

 Jane McKay (l.) and Meg Barnhart started The Zen of Slow Cooking as a blog and have expanded it into a line of spiced blends.
Jane McKay (l.) and Meg Barnhart started The Zen of Slow Cooking as a blog and have expanded it into a line of spiced blends.
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DNAInfo/Janet Rausa Fuller

CHICAGO — “Is this a mom business, or is this for real?”

The question, posed in all seriousness to Meg Barnhart and Jane McKay by a potential investor in their fledgling food company, stuck. And stung.

Two years later, McKay and Barnhart, moms and founders of The Zen Of Slow Cooking, still cringe a bit when recalling the meeting, and then they laugh.

“We are absolutely a mom business and we stand behind that," says Barnhart, 54, of Lake Forest. "We’re totally focused on helping people feel focused in and out of the kitchen. We work late at night, early in the morning. We make it work, like moms do.”

What started in 2012 as a recipe blog about the slow cooker has evolved — without the help of outside investors — into cooking classes and a line of slow cooker spice blends for sale at some Whole Foods Markets and Mrs. Green’s Natural Market, and coming in June to online grocer Peapod.

Last week, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to help with the transition to a co-packer that will take over blending the spices. McKay, 41, a food writer living in Old Irving Park, has been blending them by hand herself (more than 7,000 batches, by her estimate).

All of it supports what they call the “heart” of the business, helping adults with disabilities — like Barnhart’s 20-year-old son, Doug — gain independence.

The fees from their slow cooker classes, open to anyone, cover the cost of classes they hold free of charge for those with disabilities. For the latter group, they’ve done two such classes at Project 1212, a residence for autistic young adults in Little Italy.

The Zen spice mixes are packed, labeled and shipped by Planet Access, a third-party logistics company and social enterprise of the nonprofit Search, Inc. that trains and employs people with developmental disabilities.

Some merchandise that moves through the Planet Access warehouse in Des Plaines ends up at its retail store in Lincoln Square, where the Zen spices were for sale during the holidays.

“Zen is giving these guys an opportunity to make money, as opposed to them sitting around, participating in occupational therapy, having stuff put in front of them to do,” said Robert Parkinson, career services manager at Search, Inc.

A former event management executive, Barnhart has long been involved in fundraising for adults with disabilities and knew she wanted her business to have a charitable component.

“Only 24.5 percent of adults with intellectual difficulties and 36 percent with physical disabilities are employed in the state of Illinois,” she said. “My son is so charismatic, so fun… I just couldn’t envision that for him."

She was turned on to the slow cooker when Doug and her two other kids were young. It was a stressful time then, managing work, family and, on top of that, dinner. She often resorted to store-bought meals.

“My best friend, who’s a teacher, said, ‘Here’s what you gotta do. Stop crying. Turn off your cellphone at 3 o'clock every day. Go out and get a Crock-Pot,' " Barnhart said.

As she learned how to use her slow cooker for more than just stew — there’s a science to it, she says — she found it had a calming effect.

“Prep time was my meditation time,” she said.

Barnhart also saw a business opportunity. The slow cooker seasoning mixes on the market were too heavy on sodium and preservatives, in her opinion.

The Zen of Slow Cooking spice blends are on the shelves at some Whole Foods and will be on Peapod in June. [The Zen of Slow Cooking]

And as she tried to make converts out of everyone she knew with a slow cooker — it’s the second most widely owned small kitchen appliance behind the toaster, according to market research firm Mintel — she found that most dismissed it as a vehicle for boring, bland food.

In 2012, she met McKay, a local food advocate and British expat who’d started a community garden on her block, at a workshop for female entrepreneurs. They clicked and in 2013 released their first blend for Moroccan tagine.

“We created the product we were searching for,” Barnhart said.

McKay develops the recipes and she and Barnhart test them. They’re up to nine blends, all but one salt-free and each designed for, but not limited to, a recipe printed on the packet. The Southwestern blend is for chicken tortilla soup, but you can also make salmon tacos and three variations on chili (the recipes are on the Zen website).

"It's layering of flavors and using the right cuts of meat for the right duration," McKay said.

You can even make quick breads and French toast in the slow cooker, she said.

They’ve done cooking demos and classes in homes and at Green City Market in Lincoln Park and Elawa Farm in Lake Forest. Their aim is to help people see the slow cooker's full potential to the point where they use it once a week.

That includes Barnhart’s son, who will move into an apartment next year.

“I’m sending him back to school with a slow cooker and 10 of our barbecue blends so when [Chicago Blackhawks] season comes around, he can host Hawks parties,” Barnhart said. “It’s going to enable him to cook and bring people into his life."

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