Editor’s note: This story appeared in the March 30 edition of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.
Bobby Bland’s wake-up call came through a life-changing visit to see his father-in-law in a nursing home. Bland was overweight, with insulin-dependent diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and sleep apnea. At the nursing home, he met a woman who just had both legs amputated due to diabetes. She was 53 years old — the same age as Bland.
After that encounter, through weight loss surgery and “many prayers and realizing the right way to eat,” 180 pounds came off. But more importantly, Bland, now 62, lost the disease and no longer takes any medication.
Emily Amadon, 30, had her health crisis when she was 16. Diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, she had surgery and was on medication. With that diagnosis, Amadon said, “I wanted to figure out how to truly heal my body. What I realized was that what I eat, my body responds to.” Amadon’s disease is now under control.
Those two life-changing events eventually led Bland and Amadon to partner in creating SnackLab, a grocery store-restaurant hybrid, to make healthy food convenient for everyone.
Bland had 15 years of grocery experience at Food 4 Less and then two years at Walmart, growing the business from one supercenter to 140. After leaving Walmart, he spent 20 years as part owner of Village Insurance. After his wake-up call, he retired early and got certified as a health coach, which led him “to understand that people want to eat healthy but don’t know how.” He thought of opening a natural food store, but realized he wanted to show people how to “snack properly.”
Knowing he needed help, he reached out to Amadon, a friend of his daughter’s, who had experience as a marketing consultant. “I knew she had an entrepreneurial spirit and was in business. She’s very smart, a good person and a Millennial. I knew our market long term is Millennials.”
With a 50-50 partnership and self-funding, they worked to come up with a business centered on making healthy snacks easy and convenient.
“We didn’t know what that looked like. The first thing we said was, ‘We’ll sell apples,’” Amadon said.
A NEW CONCEPT
As they researched trends, they learned that people say are busy and don’t have time to cook, but they don’t want typical fast-food drive-thru.
“That’s where we saw the niche we could fill, giving people healthy food that was convenient and easy, where they could come in and get whatever they were hungry for to snack on,” Bland said.
According to Food/Bev Media, the global healthy snacks market was $23 billion in 2018 and could reach $33 billion by 2025. According to its research, “health-conscious consumers are looking for convenient ways to satisfy their hunger and boost nutrition, but that also fit around busy lifestyles.”
While stores like Whole Foods offer similar services, Bland and Amadon came up with a new concept that is a “hybrid between a healthy grocery store, healthy eat-in restaurant, and healthy convenience store.” They chose the tagline, “Food to Fuel Your Life.”
Both people of faith, Bland and Amadon said the concept came out of prayer, and it focuses on “serving God, serving our guests and praying.”
“We want to positively impact peoples’ lives, and we choose to do that through food,” Bland said. “We also do it through loving people here and trying to teach them balance. One of the things I’ve found in health coaching is that all of their health is tied together. It’s not just what they eat, not just exercise. It’s also their relationships, it’s their spirituality … everything that goes on in their life affects their health.”
“You’ll see in every store, written on the bar or the wall, we have our prayer summed up in ‘Let it taste good, let it be nourishing, let it change lives,’ Amadon said. “It’s that prayer that evolved into our core values. We want that concept to be a reminder of our greater purpose here.”
SnackLab opened in Bentonville in April 2017, followed by a Rogers store in July 2019 and the Fayetteville store on March 7 this year. The company employs about 35 full- and part-time workers.
IMPACTING PEOPLE’S HEALTH
SnackLab offers healthy food items, including breakfast and lunch bowls, smoothies and grab-and-go meals, catering and unique pre-packaged snacks like Think Jerky and Let Thy Food cashew-based vegan dips. The most popular items are customizable breakfast and lunch bowls, ranging in price from $6.50 to about $11, depending on what the customer wants to add. Bowls and grab-and-go meals are the biggest sellers.
“Our big three tenets are healthy, local and sustainable,” Amadon said. “This is not a diet store. It is a nourishment store.”
All items on the menu are gluten-free, except for wraps and burritos. The menu changes seasonally as produce, such as heirloom tomatoes, are available. SnackLab sources local ingredients as much as possible.
“It’s not uncommon that we’ll place an order for lettuce that is picked that night or early the next morning, delivered to our stores about 10 a.m. and in our lunches by noon that day,” Amadon said.
SnackLab partners locally with Airship Coffee, Heroes Coffee, Bansley’s Berkshire Ridge Farm, Great Ferments, Rios Family Farm, Patagonia Bee Products, KYYA Chocolate and Markham & Fitz chocolate.
Most customers are athletes, business professionals or moms on the go, all with healthy, active lifestyles and between the ages of 25 and 50, Bland said.
Instagram, email marketing, word of mouth and partnering with nonprofits like Apple Seed and the Rampy MS Research Foundation have been vital in attracting customers.
“Business has been great,” Bland said. “Since we opened Bentonville, we are over 100% growth on an average daily basis.”
“We estimate in the month of February, one store did 4,000 transactions,” Amadon said.
Opening three stores in three years has been a challenge, the partners said, and they intend to work on getting those stores “standing strong” before adding another.
While they don’t believe they’ve saturated the Northwest Arkansas market and could see a store in Springdale, they’ve learned that stores have to be convenient and have good parking. Soon, Little Rock and Tulsa, Okla., may also be target markets.
“I think the pipe dream would be to dominate the Midwest with healthy food,” Amadon said. “The coasts get so many trends. So much innovation is happening there. We want to drive the middle of the country because sometimes it’s years behind, and we want to change that.”
The goal of helping people with their health is critical.
“We want to impact people positively, even if it doesn’t make us a ton of money. We won’t lose money, but we want to make an impact however we can,” Bland said. “I believe three years from now, we’ll be doing things differently than we are today — for the same goal — because we will adjust. We’re a ‘lab.’ We’re going to change, we’re going to grow. As long as it fits and impacts people positively and it’s the right way to do things, we’re going to keep growing and getting better.”