Defying the stereotype that Iowa produces just corn, pork, and eggs, Colette Johnson (L)(’91 accounting) has set out to create niche markets for Iowa products ranging from cheese to salsa to hummus.
Her company, “That Iowa Girl,” delivers products made by Iowa’s small farmers and manufacturers to stores throughout Iowa and surrounding states. It’s a unique business model because, Johnson likes to say, “Nobody else is crazy enough to go out and do what we do.”
The idea started out with one product: healthy soy oil. Johnson was working for a group of soy farmers called Innovative Growers, and she offered to try to get the product placed on the shelves of Hy-Vee grocery stores. It was a natural fit for her, with her family background in farming, a degree in business, and a 1,000-megawatt smile perfectly designed for sales. She picked up a few more clients and in 2010 started delivering non-perishable food items from the back seat of her car.
“That Iowa Girl” grew from there. Johnson kept meeting more small business owners who wanted her to promote their products, so she bought a refrigerated delivery truck. And hired a driver. And bought a second truck. And added a sales staff.
Today the Iowa products distribution company that Johnson runs out of a former gas station in Clarion, Iowa, represents some 30 vendors and places their products in Hy-Vee and Fareway stores, Natural Grocers, Brothers Markets, and many other grocery stores and food co-ops throughout the state of Iowa as well as to stores in Nebraska, Missouri, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Kansas – more than 300 grocery stores in all.
Products run the gamut from Amish bakery items to small-batch potato chips, but a few items have been best sellers.One is La Casa chile con queso, a restaurant-style cheese dip manufactured in Iowa City.
“There’s really nobody else who makes a product like this, and it tastes just like you get in the Mexican restaurants,” Johnson said. “La Casa used to have a restaurant in Iowa City, but now they just do food production. People from Iowa City know this product from the restaurants.”
Other best sellers are Madame Mary bloody mary mix from Templeton, Oasis hummus from Iowa City, and Gino’s sauces and dressings from Des Moines. New to her distribution list is Do-Biz frozen cookie dough from Ames.
“Having a customer like That Iowa Girl puts our product in niche locations that we would never find on our own,” said Craig Smith, president of Sterzing Food Co. in Burlington. “Colette adds the personal touch that Midwesterners are known for and she represents our Iowa product very well.”
In 2013 the business expanded to include an outlet store in Clarion that offers most of the products Johnson and her team distribute to retail stores.
“This store is just kind of my fun thing, because I’m so proud of what we have,” Johnson said. “People will ask me about such and such, but as you know we’re kind of in the middle of nowhere, so it’s a way for them to try the same food I’m taking to Hy-Vee…and everywhere else. Guess what? They can come right here.”
Johnson sings the praises of small-town Iowa.
“I have such fond memories of growing up on the farm,” she says. “When I first graduated from Iowa State and went to Des Moines, that was my dream, to be a city girl. But I love small town safety, and people helping out one another. I’m very blessed that the community supports me.”