Lindsey Hickey grew up helping herself to Simek’s meatballs while helping out her parents in company stores. Hickey, now president and co-owner of the St. Paul Park-based frozen-food company, has changed up recipes for its meatballs and lasagnas and launched “One Gives One,” donating a meal for every product purchased to a food bank in the community where the purchase occurred. Hickey joined Simek’s in 2008, becoming president in 2010 after buying into the company that her father had acquired from founder Bill Simek, who started it in 1972.
Q: What changes have you been making at Simek’s?
A: We’ve always been a mission-based brand. In the past we’ve donated 10 percent of our profits to charity. We wanted to make a bigger impact and do more knowing that we have such a large platform with our brand. We shifted our focus from “Making Mealtime Easier” — which is very important to us still, but we’re a frozen-foods company and people don’t purchase frozen foods to make life more difficult — to now “Great Food for the Greater Good.”
Q: What does that mean?
A: That means products that are free from artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. We have been going through reformulation on some of our products that haven’t met that standard and we have now officially reformulated those products. The entire line is now free from artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. The greater good aspect of our brand is our social impact. We partnered with Feeding America through our “One Gives One” program.
Q: How does the program work and how many meals does Simek’s expect to donate?
A: We track it down to the store address. Whatever Feeding America food bank serves that area is the food bank that we donate to. In the Twin Cities metro it’s Second Harvest [Heartland]. This year we’re expecting to donate, from October to the end of the year, half-a-million meals.
Q: What motivated you to expand the company’s charitable efforts?
A: One in eight people in the U.S. is food insecure. We’re a food company. We feel it’s our responsibility to make an impact on that. When you’re looking at your numbers and you’re only measuring dollars and margin, that’s the business aspect of it. But it wasn’t igniting our passion. There was an opportunity to do more.
Q: How does being a millennial influence your leadership?
A: Having purpose and passion behind what you’re doing every day. We measure passion for each team member quarterly. It’s more our team members reviewing their role and their level of passion for that role. If a team member’s not passionate about something that they’re doing, I try to move that to somebody else who is passionate about that. It’s making sure that you’re coming to work and doing something that’s purposeful and making a bigger impact than selling a product.
Q: Who is your target consumer?
A: Our focus is busy moms who prefer quality and convenience and who value the idea of giving back. We’re focused on that with the cleaner ingredients, our bold packaging and the social impact. We know that is important to a lot of people but millennials expect a company to be doing more. It’s not a new thing we’re doing … we’re just organically aligning with the needs of that next consumer.
Q: What is your approach to new markets?
A: We’ve done the work in our home market to be successful. Simek’s is the No. 1-selling meatball brand in Minnesota, outselling all the frozen, fresh, branded and private-label meatballs combined. While we’re a mature company, from that standpoint we’re a young company in some of our growth opportunities. We foster an environment of trial and error and change and creativity. In new markets it’s making sure our products stand out. That’s a big focus.
Q: How do you reach new customers?
A: We’re trying to educate consumers to think outside of the toothpick and come up with creative ways to use our products. We did meatball mummies for Halloween. We’re working on meatball snowmen for Christmas. What’s great is the semi-homemade, being able to put the meatballs in some sauces you like or some different noodles. The options for how to use them are pretty wide.
Q: What is some advice for other small business owners?
A: Have strong mentors and a strong support group. I joined the Women Presidents’ Organization [nonprofit facilitated, peer-advisory group] when I was 26, when I bought the company. It’s been a phenomenal support group of incredible business leaders. Networking and learning from others and trying to absorb all that I can has been a huge help.
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury.