More than 450 hopeful entrepreneurs began streaming into Bentonville on Tuesday (June 12) from 46 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia for Walmart’s “Open Call.”
This year, Walmart held a product expo and information event at the Four Points Sheraton for the guests a day before the big show. Walmart said having entrepreneurs come in a day ahead allows them to settle in, talk with a mentor and get their questions answered before the full day’s event on Wednesday at the retail giant’s home office in Bentonville. The invited guests also had their pictures taken by Walmart for future promotion should their items be picked up by the retailer.
Walmart said there are roughly 750 meetings between buyers and entrepreneurs tomorrow that will take place after the general session. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is one of the featured speakers at the general session which will be webcast beginning at 8 a.m. (CST). Roger Tutterow, an economics, finance and quantitative analysis professor and director of the Econometric Center at Kennesaw (Ga.) State University, and several top Walmart executives will speak about the importance of supporting U.S. manufacturing.
“We are so excited about this year’s event and the opportunity to meet the entrepreneurs that look to Open Call as a chance to get the big break they have been looking for. We are proud of the supplier success stories from prior years and look forward to helping more entrepreneurs realize the American dream,” said Cindi Marsiglio, Walmart vice president for Merchandising Services and U.S. Manufacturing.
Marsiglio said this year the entrepreneurs include those meeting with a buyer for the first time and existing suppliers pitching a new product. She said 57 entrepreneurs are from California, 44 from Florida, 40 from Michigan, 30 from New York and 27 from New Jersey.
Talk Business & Politics met with Tom and Jill Flournoy, who made the drive to Bentonville from Memphis. It is the couple’s first time to pitch to Walmart, but they already have their cheese dips and pimento cheese in Kroger stores in the Delta Region as far north as Tennessee.
“When Tom lost his job in 2009, he began tinkering with his mother’s pimento cheese recipe and developed a love for cooking in our tiny kitchen. We branded our products Tom’s Tiny Kitchen, but now we cook in a large commercial kitchen as the business has grown,” Jill Flournoy said. “We started small selling at farmers markets in 2011 and word began to spread pretty fast after that.”
The couple said they are pitching the two varieties of pimento cheese, classic and chipotle flavored, and three flavors of cheese dips — white, chipotle-bacon and not-so-spicy Thai. They will meet with the buyer over fresh dairy at noon Wednesday and said they believe the products will speak for themselves.
“We would like to get these products into all of Walmart’s stores and are prepared to ramp up production if we get an order,” Tom Flournoy said.
The products, packed in Memphis, are refrigerated and all the ingredients are natural, gluten-free, with no artificial preservatives.
Kinna Thomas, a Walmart buyer in fresh bakery, told Talk Business & Politics she and other food buyers are focused first on quality. She said quality trumps all else when it comes to food. Thomas has been a buyer of fresh bakery for three years and said the retailer is always looking for fresh baked goods from breads to sweets.
Last year, Thomas said yes to DC Cakes, a sweet potato confection still in the process of getting into stores. Thomas said DC Cakes has worked with Walmart to reduce price and not compromise quality. She said Walmart will work with suppliers on serving size, flavors and other metrics and in some cases it can take a year to get product into stores after Open Call. The average time is about 10 months.
Thomas said one of the biggest trends in baked goods are single servings. She’s hoping to see and taste some baked goods on Wednesday. She said Walmart can start with an offer of a few hundred stores to help the smaller suppliers build up to a bigger distribution. If the supplier is ready, however, they can launch the product nationwide.
Ray Doustdar of Los Angeles told Talk Business & Politics he’s back in Bentonville to pitch three new products after he got two others into 3,000 stores after last year’s Open Call. Doustdar founded Buiced in 2014 because he was looking for a liquid multivitamin he could drink. When he could not find a liquid form of daily vitamins, he created one. From 2011 to 2014 he tweaked the product to get the flavoring right and by 2015 he had come up with Buiced — a take on the word Juice. He said vitamin absorption is low in pill and capsule form but it’s 98% in a liquid form, which is why he first sought to liquify the vitamin packs he was taking.
Doustdar also was a mentor at Tuesday’s event, having gone through the process last year. He said by the time he got to pitch his product in front of Walmart buyers last year he was already selling on Amazon and had built brand awareness.
“I was ready to scale the business and Walmart gave me that opportunity launching Buiced in 3,000 stores this spring. I outsource the manufacturing, use a freight consolidator and I handle the marketing end of the business. I have my friends around the country check on my product out in stores near where they live and send me a photo of the shelf placement. I couldn’t be happier with my partnership with Walmart,” he said.
Doustdar previously worked as a category and brand planner for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, before launching other startups which he sold. As a new supplier into Walmart, Doustdar said the biggest learning curve for him was the logistics at such a large scale. He said navigating freight costs with a manufacturing facility on the West Coast is pricier than it has to be. He’s looking to add production in Dallas in the next few months to get the product closer to more of Walmart’s distribution centers. Before the end of the year, he also plans to add another manufacturer on the East Coast to service stores in that region.
Doustdar said on Thursday he will pitch a prenatal, senior version and a child’s version of his Buiced liquid vitamins. The versions of the product are sold online but he’s hoping to get additional shelf space in brick-and-mortar. The vitamin juice retails at Walmart for $9.97 and contains 16 servings in either fruit juice or orange citrus flavors. He said the cap on the bottle is the measuring cup for the liquid and it’s easy to take just drinking from the cap.
“This is such a great opportunity for American entrepreneurs who have dreamed of getting their products into the hands of consumers across the country. If it could happen for me, it’s possible for many others,” he said.