60 entrepreneurs get ‘golden ticket’ to do business with Walmart

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 3,197 views 

Harley Bauer of New York City received a golden ticket from Walmart buyers for his family's Papa's Pop Skinless popcorn snacks at Walmart's Open Call in Bentonville on Wednesday. He is being led down the hallway toward the media center by Chris Jones of Walmart's merchandising team.

Toting backpacks, sample goods and with nerves on edge, around 700 business owners on Wednesday (Oct. 25) got 20 minutes with buyer teams to make their product pitch at Walmart’s Open Call. The retailer said every state was represented at this year’s event.

Walmart and Sam’s Club merchant teams handed out 60 golden tickets for a deal by 5 p.m. from almost 1,000 meetings held between two corporate locations and virtually. A few companies got two golden tickets for separate products they pitched.

Ben Moore, a fourth-generation farmer and U.S. Army veteran from Farmersville, Calif., and his business partner Matt Gorella, chief brand officer, came to Open Call not knowing what to expect. But they got a golden ticket early in the day after pitching their sustainable, clean-label, dried fruit snack made from rejected fruit grown in California’s Central Valley. Moore said after his military service he started a small trucking business to move fruit from farms to the local markets. At the end of each day’s run, he was throwing out the ugly fruit passed over at market.

“You would not believe how much fruit was thrown away each day. I knew my grandmother used to dry the left-behind fruit from our farm on her rooftop as a snack for us and we loved it,” Moore said. “I set out to make dried fruit snacks with the discarded fruit.”

He brought in Gorella who had just finished his master’s degree in business administration and whose family previously supplied raisins to Sun-Maid. They created Ugly Co., for their dried fruit snacks because of the appearance of the discarded fruit. Moore peddled the dried fruit at local markets and trade shows and then got distribution in 54 Whole Foods stores and later in Sprouts and HyVee.

Ugly Co. employs 36 people who work in their drying plant or in sales and distribution. Moore expects the company will ramp up and eventually double in size because of the Walmart deal. He said the plant has the capacity to dry 4,000 pounds per day and they now are running at 50%. One selling point for Walmart was the sustainability gains. If Walmart buys one pallet of Ugly Co. dried fruit for 500 stores, that’s a savings of two million pounds of fruit waste. Gorella said that is a tiny fraction of the waste they see daily in a growing season. Moore said they will work with Walmart to determine the number of stores to supply in the coming weeks.

“This is definitely the biggest deal we have gotten so far. We know Walmart is everywhere and that’s a lot of fruit waste we can save and move up the value chain,” Gorella said.

Amanda Ratcliff and Nicholas Hall made the trip from New Orleans to pitch their blended butter products under the brand Buttery Spell. Ratcliff began blending favors into her hand-churned butter during the pandemic and thought there had to be a better way to infuse flavors rather than finely chopping garlic and parsley. In 2020, Ratcliff said she began blending pecans into butter because it was not available in stores. She then experimented with adding strawberry jam to the butter and other flavorful options not sold at retail. Through word of mouth, demand for savory and sweet butter blends grew with sales to friends, family and local restaurants. Buttery Spell is made near Baton Rouge and will be coming to Walmart stores next year. The company said it will work with Walmart in the coming months to finalize the deal and determine the number of stores to start and those locations.

“This has been three years in the making and I feel overjoyed that we are going to be in Walmart,” Ratcliff said.

Alaa Alderie hails from St. Louis where his immigrant family runs a Syrian bakery. The family immigrated from Damascus and opened the bakery in 2014. Alderie said he pitched pita bread to Walmart buyers on Wednesday and got a golden ticket. He said it’s a family recipe made fresh daily. It will be in select Walmart stores in the coming months. He’s also negotiating a deal to get the bread into Walmart store deli counters. Alderie was eager to call his dad who was baking bread in St. Louis and share the news.

Jacob Johnson made the trip from Arlington, Texas, and pitched his soy-based candles made in his Calyan Wax Company factory. Johnson was stoked to get the go-ahead from Walmart and said it’s great for his family business which employs 45 people. He said 5% of the company revenue at Calyan is donated to fight human trafficking in the U.S. To date, Johnson said the company has donated more than $288,000 to nonprofits dedicated to end human trafficking.

Average Bros founders Bobby Willis and Nate French from Minneapolis, Minn., got a nod from Walmart late in the day for their plant-based men’s grooming products. The childhood friends said they set out to make a sustainable and cruelty-free brand for every man. The majority of the company’s business has been wholesale to barber shops and online retail. They will continue to work with their buyer to finalize the deal and decide which products will make it to Walmart shelves.

Harley Bauer of New York City got a deal for his Papas’ Pop skinless popcorn snacks. Bauer said his father Victor started the company two years ago after finding a manufacturer in Minnesota to remove the kernel part of the popcorn. He said it’s safer for small children to eat because it goes down smoother, and it also does not get stuck in people’s teeth, as the kernel and skin have been removed. It’s also an alternative for people with diverticulitis who can’t digest seeds or corn kernels. The company is already selling the product in Target stores and in select Kroger locations. Bauer said he was grateful to get the product in Walmart stores so more people across the country who can’t enjoy popcorn will have an option that works. He said the family company has six employees and works with the co-packer, but the upcoming Walmart business and distribution to 1,000 more stores by next June will likely mean the addition of a few people.

Taufeek Shah, CEO of Lola’s Fine Sauces based in West Des Moines, Iowa, was already a supplier to Walmart. He got a “yes” from Walmart at last year’s Open Call for his hot sauces inspired by his mother, Carmelita Lola Shah, who immigrated from the Philippines to work as a physician in a rural farm community in central Iowa. Shah said Lola would make her sauces with fresh ingredients she got from the farmers she treated. He said the fresh sauces were infused with Filipino influences. In 2015, she relinquished her secret recipes to Shah, and he began selling the sauces locally. Shah, a former finance broker, has grown the company’s U.S. distribution with 13 retailers, including Kroger, Target and Costco. The product is made in Iowa, and the hot sauces Walmart approved last year are in more than 400 stores and going to 1,000 in January. The salsa he pitched on Wednesday got the go-ahead for 500 stores to be determined soon.

Walmart told the golden ticket winners they would receive an email in the next two weeks outlining more details. The retailer will also hold a webinar with the suppliers to get them ready for the next steps. While the majority of companies went home without a deal, Walmart said it will continue to stay in touch with many of them over the next year to track progress and hopefully see them again in 2024.

Following are other businesses that received a green light during Open Call.
• John Berglund of Gerson Manufacturing in Middleborough, Mass. – N-95 masks
• South Beach Bubble Co., Fort Lauderdale, Fla. – Bubble Gun for colored bubbles
• Fire Dept. Coffee, Rockford, Ill. – Spirit infused coffee
• Molly Blakeley, Anchorage, Alaska – Molly BZ Gourmet Cookies
• Small Town Cultures, Keene, N.Y. – raw fermented probiotic pickled jalapeños, kimchi, spicy radish
• Ko Hana Rum, Kunia, Hawaii – flavored rum made from sugarcane grown on the island.
• Pork King Good, Milwaukee, Wis. – flavored pork skins