Picture two mid-twentysomething guys, a couple of years out of SMU. What do you see? Maybe you see two well-educated young men, following a certain prescribed path, settling into corporate careers and assessing how to climb the proverbial ladder.
But that’s not the picture Ben Hurt, 26, and Blaine Iler, 25, want to paint.
“If we want to end hunger, we have to make a product so good that someone buys it over and over again,” says Impact Foods co-founder Ben Hurt.
The seeds of the big idea
Hurt and Iler met in an entrepreneurship class in 2008 and started their company a year later. They will both tell you that they didn’t know what they didn’t know. But they were willing to do whatever it took to find out.
During that class, they realized that the model of a mission-driven business wasn’t just a fad, that it was something that could be their life’s work.
“That’s what encouraged us to look at the really, really big problems — poverty, education, hunger, healthcare, things like that,” Hurt says.
“We learned that if you prop up or support the hunger problem in any given community, you fix those other pillars. You’re fixing healthcare because children aren’t susceptible to certain diseases. You’re fixing poverty because you’re buying food from local markets and providing jobs.
“You’re fixing education because the attendance shoots way up at schools with meal programs, because moms send their kids to school knowing they’re getting a meal. As a result, the kids can retain what they’re learning because they’re getting fed.”
The start of something good
Hurt and Iler started by finding people who knew more than they did. They knew they wanted a one-to-one food company — meaning for every product sold, a child gets a meal — and they chose granola because it was something they could tackle right away.
So they enlisted a family friend, who had experience as a chef in New York, to help them create a recipe for an all-natural, wholesome granola unlike anything else on the market.
In those early days, they were buying their own ingredients, labeling their own bags and baking their own granola in a commercial kitchen in Garland. After selling to family and friends through their website, Eatzi’s picked up the line that now includes three flavors: maple oat, vanilla almond and blueberry honey.
“The recipe was awesome,” Iler says. “We struck something with this. We got fanatical emails from people, saying this was the best granola they’ve ever eaten.”
“Our trip to Honduras rounded out the story — both the inspiration, why we are running a business the way we are, and the tactics of how that might be carried out,” says co-founder Blaine Iler.
“We’re responsible for making sure we have the best product out there,” Hurt says. “People might buy it once because they’re helping to feed children, but people buy what they like. If we want to make an impact, end hunger, all of those things, we have to make a product so good that someone buys it over and over again.”
The turning point
A fortuitous meeting with Stephen White of Company Cafe would change the trajectory of the startup. White wanted to put the granola on the menu, along with Three Happy Cows yogurt. The yogurt company was in talks with Whole Foods and ultimately opened the door for Impact Foods, which is now available in Whole Foods stores in Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Utah, New Mexico, Kansas and Arkansas.
But first Hurt and Iler had some more learning to do. In July 2011, they visited an orphanage, after-school program and health clinic in Honduras. To hear them talk, this was the real turning point.
“One of the amazing things for me about Honduras was, at that point, we were still really, really small,” Iler says. “This was sort of a side project for us, something we knew we wanted to put some time and effort behind, but we were really rounding out our learning of the problem and our business and how we could go about solving the problem with the business.”
During the trip to Honduras, the business model clicked.
“That completely rounded out the story — both the inspiration, why we are running a business the way we are, and the tactics of how that might be carried out,” Iler says.
Part of that education included seeing piles of rice and beans and other foods, donated by well-meaning organization, sitting unused because there was no clean water, heating source or person to cook it.
“We knew there had to be a better way to deliver food to these types of communities, where there wasn’t infrastructure in place,” Hurt says. Their research into a ready-to-use product led to a partnership with the World Food Program.
“We don’t want to be the company that writes a check and never thinks about it. That’s the exact opposite reason why we started Impact Foods,” Hurt says.
Buy a bag, feed a child
Among other initiatives, the WFP has a program focused on the first 1,000 days of life, so the organization developed a series of ready-to-use products, either chickpea or peanut based, packed with micro and macronutrients to nourish children during those first few critical years.
“The packs can be opened up and consumed, and they are medically designed to treat malnutrition,” Hurt says. “Gone are the piles of rice and beans.”
Hurt says that the big takeaway from the trip to Honduras was a commitment to knowing how the giving process worked, down to the last detail.
“Any time we say, ‘You buy a bag of granola, and we feed a school meal,’ we know what school, what they’re being fed and the red cups they get their meals in — all of it.
“We don’t want to be the company that writes a check and never thinks about it. That’s the exact opposite reason why we started Impact Foods. Until you see it, you don’t know what’s important.”
Speaking of what’s important, Hurt and Iler credit their parents — not for passing along the entrepreneurial genes, but for instilling values.
They learned the importance of giving and volunteering from their families. Hurt was an Eagle Scout; Iler was a volunteer EMT.
“Our families are almost anti-entrepreneurial, but both sets of parents made sacrifices” Hurt says. “They had the steady jobs so we could have the education. Now what are we going to go do with it? How do we make the world a better place?
“There’s a sense of responsibility. It’s not lost on us what they did.”
There’s no doubt these two take that responsibility seriously. This past October, Hurt and Iler traveled to Washington, D.C., to make a donation of 20,000 meals to the World Food Program. It was their biggest donation to date, and they finally got to meet their partners in this endeavor.
“It was a proud moment,” Iler says.