Made in Minnesota

Millennial-lead SIMEK’S is marketing to a new generation of foodies

Millennial-lead SIMEK’S is marketing to a new generation of foodies

All the ingredients for success.

Founded in the early '70s, SIMEK’S has had a number of incarnations over the years. Partners Bill Simek and Jay Bruber created the SIMEK’S brand; it began as a wholesale restaurant distributor and quickly transitioned to a specialty retail chain. Bruber purchased the company from Simek in 1990, and, in response to consumer demand for one-stop shopping, the company once again evolved: This time as consumer-packaged goods. Its latest iteration, frozen food free of preservatives, artificial flavors and artificial coloring, was championed by Bruber’s daughter, Lindsey Hickey, who became co-owner and president of the company in 2010. 

Hickey and her four siblings essentially grew up in SIMEK’S retail stores. Following high school, Hickey attended the University of Saint Thomas, graduating in 2007 with a double degree in marketing and entrepreneurship. Immediately following graduation, she worked for Shop NBC (now Shop HQ), before realizing that she wanted to work in a more entrepreneurial environment. That’s when she joined her parents at SIMEK’S, initially working in the marketing department. 

Her transition to president and co-owner came about organically, as the family sat around the dinner table discussing the company. “We’re an entrepreneurial family. A lot of our conversations around the table are about business and opportunities. So [my joining SIMEK’S] actually started as a conversation about some ideas I had for the company, and it evolved from there. It wasn’t a written-out strategy of bringing me on and taking the company over. My dad had started another business that required a lot of his time, and so I think he was looking for that right-hand person to help with SIMEK’S. Then he saw the passion that I had for it, and he thought it was a great idea. I was very fortunate to have him as a partner, along with my mom, to allow me to take the company where I thought it could go,” she says.

Cultural revolution
After taking over SIMEK’S helm, one of the first things Hickey did was to incorporate the Entrepreneurial Operation System (EOS) into its business model. “That was influential in helping accomplish what we needed to for the business. It laid the foundation for growth and helped us to set our goals, from a team, a culture and a product standpoint,” she says. 

Hickey says the company always had a set of core values it worked from, but the EOS model helped make those values more of a focus. “Our core values are honesty, integrity, excellence, a customer focus, compassion, professionalism and charity,” explains Hickey.

Hickey has also incorporated a sense of fun into the workplace. After determining it was more efficient to outsource storage, Hickey and Bruber had the company’s 7,000-square-foot freezer reimagined into a team-member lounge, complete with pool and foosball tables. “We also bring in a masseuse once a month, and everyone gets a 15-minute massage,” says Hickey. Team members have the opportunity to double those minutes by nominating someone — or being nominated — for exhibiting one of the company’s core values.  

SIMEK’S has also been using the platform Officevibe to monitor its work culture. The anonymous feedback tool allows team members to pose questions and raise concerns. “I use that information to help understand how I can make our organization and culture better. It’s a constant evolution,” says Hickey.

Rebranding and product strategy
Hickey has rebranded the company, discontinuing some products to focus on consumer favorites. “In Minnesota, we sell more meatballs than all other brands in the market combined. We are the number one lasagna in the market, as well. We’re staying focused on those categories, then looking at how we improve those products,” she says. “We removed all artificial colors, flavors and preservatives from all of our products. With our rebrand, our focus — our mission — is to provide great food for the greater good. The great food aspect is the cleaner ingredients that we use. The greater good aspect is our One Gives One program.” 

Through the program, the company donates one meal for every product purchased to the local Feeding America food bank serving the community in which the product was sold. “So if you’re purchasing our product in a Cub Foods in Minneapolis, that meal donation is going to go to the Second Harvest food bank here. If you’re purchasing at Jewel in Chicago, it’s going to go to either the Northern Illinois food bank or the Greater Chicago Food Depository. We’re trying to empower consumers to help fight against hunger at a local level,” says Hickey. 

While One Gives One is a relatively new program to SIMEK’S, the act of charitable giving is not. “We’ve always been a charity-focused company. We’ve always donated 10% of our profits to charity,” she says. “We’ve been given this platform as a food company to build awareness [about hunger]. … One in eight people in the U.S. is struggling with hunger. That shouldn’t be an issue. We’ve got all the means necessary in this country to solve that problem. We need more people banding together — more companies banding together — to make an impact,” says Hickey, adding that SIMEK’S is on track to reach its goal of donating 1.5 million meals in 2018 alone. 

Challenges and opportunities
As a young woman in the male-dominated manufacturing industry, Hickey has seen some resistance from her peers. “Not only did I come into a male-dominated industry, but I was also really young. I was 26 years old when I became an owner of this company, and that was met with a lot of judgment. Judgment because it was a family company. Judgment because I was a woman. So there were many areas where I felt excluded or like I was missing out on an opportunity because I was a woman.”

So Hickey made sure she was doubly prepared, and she sought out mentors. “I never am, nor do I want to be the smartest person in the room, and that’s why I’m always trying to surround myself with incredible women who have led the charge.” 

While it was an obstacle, her age was also an advantage, providing insight into one of her industry’s most desired consumer demographics: the millennial.  “Retailers have been trying to figure out how do we bring consumers — how do we bring millennials — back down the frozen-foods aisle? Well, for us, we’re a company owned and run by a millennial. We do things differently. We just do. We started by looking at our packaging. Today, we have bold packaging, very different than our competitors in our categories. It’s very bright, fun and playful. We brought the product to the center of the package and made it the hero, but kept it inspirational, letting consumers put their own, we say, ‘culinary genius,’ around what to do with our products,” she says. 

Bold packaging. Clean ingredients. Social impact. Sounds like the perfect recipe for continued success.