Jill Blashack-Strahan believes her title, CEO, “sounds a bit too conventional,” considering the close-knit company she runs and the almost accidental way it came to be. And even though she started Tastefully Simple, a retailer of easy-to-prepare gourmet foods sold at home tasting parties, Blashack-Strahan hesitates to describe herself as an entrepreneur. “I don’t consider myself to be a risk taker,” she says.
Still, she’s grown Alexandria-based Tastefully Simple into a 320-employee company since its inception in 1995. Its 20,000 consultants—many of whom are stay-at-home mothers and women looking for supplementary income—helped the company garner $110 million in sales last year. These representatives are recruited by other consultants, purchase a starter kit for $170, and, as independent business owners, receive up to 36 percent commission on the sales they generate at each home party. This year, the company projects that sales of its more than 30 gourmet products, which include seasonings, soups, bread mixes, desserts, and beverages, will reach $116 million.
A 1979 graduate of two associate-degree programs in sales and marketing at Alexandria Technical College, Blashack-Strahan spent three years afterwards running a café owned by her father in her nearby hometown of Villard, then worked other jobs at a tanning salon and a bank. But in 1989, Blashack-Strahan started a business of her own, Care With Flair, selling gift baskets filled with gourmet foods and items such as candles and frames from a storefront in Alexandria. Her small business employed a handful of people and netted about $100,000 a year—not enough, she soon determined, relative to the effort she was putting into it.
“My son was born in 1992, and in 1994, I started to think, ‘I don’t want to invest that much time if I’m not going to see the financial rewards.’ ” Blashack-Strahan liquidated her retail shop and sold directly to corporate accounts through her client list. She also displayed her baskets as part of a local crafters’ event, and, on a whim, decided to offer participants samples of the gourmet foods packed inside. The foods were received better than the baskets themselves; people at the event purchased $2,500 in food and only $200 in gift baskets.
That was enough to give Blashack-Strahan the concept for Tastefully Simple. “People are looking for great foods, and they’re willing to spend money for a quality product that’s convenient,” she says. “If products like gourmet food sold in outstate Minnesota, these products would sell anywhere in the nation. My joke is that this was the beginning and end of market research—it was intuitive market research.”
Blashack’s first few days after she launched her new business in June 1995 were discouraging. One evening, as she made calls to try to schedule tasting parties, “Steve, my late husband, and my son, Zach, were playing out back. I’m looking out longingly thinking, ‘I want to be out there,’ ” Blashack-Strahan recalls. She made about 20 calls, and “I think I got one booking that night.”
Feeling defeated, she went to work the next day at her facility—a 1,200-square-foot shed where she packaged orders on a pool table. Then she got a call from the print shop that was publishing the Tastefully Simple catalogs. Blashack’s first thought was that they wouldn’t be printed in time for her first scheduled tasting party. Instead, the print shop owner said the idea of a home tasting party had intrigued her, and she wanted to book one.
“After I hung up, I looked up to the heavens and said, ‘Thank you, God,’ ” Blashack-Strahan recalls. “I just needed that so badly. It’s so easy to get discouraged, get fearful, and retract ourselves whenever we start something new.”
By year’s end, seven consultants had joined Tastefully Simple. The next year, Blashack-Strahan had 33 consultants. By 1998, revenues reached the $1 million mark.