Spark of the Heart Owners’ Rebound from Recession Was a Powerful Mix

By Bob Benenson, FamilyFarmed

Spark of the Heart, the start-up food business featured in this article, produces dry soup, salad, and sides mixes in Chicago. The company, owned by the married couple of Cynthia Zeki and Thomas Frierson, also is a member of the first class of Fellows in FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Business Accelerator program.

The Accelerator’s Demo Day @ 1871 on the evening of Monday, April 27 will provide an opportunity to hear presentations by the creative entrepreneurs behind the nine companies and mingle with them at a reception following the program. To learn more and register for the event, click here, and please check out the links to other Good Food on Every Table stories about the Good Food Business Accelerator.

One of the very few good things you can say about hard times, such as the recent Great Recession, is that they tend to unleash a lot of entrepreneurial energy. Many people whose careers and lives have been disrupted due to economic circumstances beyond their control apply creativity and their personal passions to battle their way back.

That was the case for Thomas Frierson and Cynthia Zeki, a married Chicago couple who four years ago started Spark of the Heart. Their company produces dry bean-based soup, salad and sides mixes based on recipes Zeki developed to feed their family over the years.

There was nothing in either of their backgrounds that suggested a second career in the food business. Zeki, previously a professor, was a massage therapist and energy healer with her own practice and an Internet radio show. Frierson had worked in technology sales for 20 years. But, as they explained in an email interview, they were hit hard by the recession.

“We started Spark of the Heart when all our money was just about gone,” they wrote.

Spark of the Heart soup mix

Spark of the Heart’s mixes are colorful, convenient, and tasty

Zeki and Frierson found that everyone who tasted their products enjoyed them. Zeki said, “Customers liked that we are socially responsible, and said they could taste the love in each bite!”

By faith, tenacity, networking, participation in lots of tasting events, and some serendipity that involved being discovered by a local supermarket chain, the Spark of the Heart owners grew the market for their product. Yet, they say, “Money has always been our biggest challenge… we’ve always struggled to fund and build our business.”

That issue is one that made Spark of the Heart an apt candidate for the first class of nine entrepreneurial Fellows in FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Business Accelerator. Launched last fall, the program provides its Fellows with learning experiences, mentorship, and access to FamilyFarmed’s extensive network of business experts, as well as financiers who have a strong interest in investing or lending money to small businesses in the Good Food sector.

“This program has introduced us to many professionals in the food industry (as well as general business) whose expertise has taught us about all the different facets of running a highly successful food business,” Frierson and Zeki wrote. Frierson was a panelist during a discussion of the Accelerator program and the company was an exhibitor during Family Farmed’s Good Food Festival & Conference March 19-21.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin visit to the Good Food Festival & Conference

Cynthia Zeki and Thomas Frierson, the owners of Chicago’s Spark of the Heart, with Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin (second right) and FamilyFarmed President Jim Slama (right) on March 20 at the FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Festival & Conference. Spark of the Heart, a participant in FamilyFarmed’s Good Food Business Accelerator, was an exhibitor at the event.

The experience will be capped on the evening of Monday, April 27 when Spark of the Heart will participate in the Accelerator program’s Demo Day @ 1871. Owners of the nine participating companies will do presentations about their businesses at the event — which takes place at 1871, the center for entrepreneurial innovation located in the historic Merchandise Mart — and will be available for conversation at a reception that follows. For more information and to register for the event, click here.

Growing on the Go

There is another important reason why Spark of the Heart fits well into the Accelerator program. Their product line embodies the rising consumer interest in adapting “convenience” foods to the health, nutrition, and ecologic concerns that have fueled the rapid development of the Good Food movement.

“To prepare our soups, all you need to do is boil water and simmer,” they explained. “For our beans and rice dishes, you just add water and a bit of oil to keep the rice from sticking to the pan. Our bean salads come complete as well, with a vinaigrette mix that you toss with vinegar and oil.”

“Because we use real ingredients — organic or freeze-dried beans, air-dried veggies, spices, and jasmine rice — our products are all naturally vegan and gluten-free,” they continued. “All of our products are non-GMO as well.”

Zeki started developing these recipes years ago after picking up a commercial dry soup mix, thinking it would save time, and discovered it was both inconvenient — it required the addition of meat, vegetables, and other ingredients — and replete with fillers, thickening agents, and a lot of sodium that she did not want to feed her family. She started sharing her homemade preparations with neighbors “to rave reviews.”

Yet their decision to turn those recipes into a business was unplanned. It was not until they produced a couple of cases of what became Spark of the Heart’s original products for a café at their church, and sold out, that the spark of a business idea emerged.

The couple put together a sales kit, and quickly got their first big break. They gave a sample of their product to a woman who worked at a store in Chicago’s small Treasure Island chain, who gave it to the grocery manager. The product happened to be sitting on the manager’s desk when the owner came in, spotted it, took it home to prepare — and then ordered Spark of the Heart products for all of Treasure Island’s outlets.

“All of this happened within nine months,” Zeki and Frierson said.

Having determined that there is a market for their products, the owners are seeking to scale up to ensure continued financial viability, which in turn inspired them to apply for the Good Food Business Accelerator program. They are positively effusive about the program’s benefits.

“There are no words to express how grateful we are and how much we have benefitted from this program…,” they said. “The support, encouragement, and dedication of all the folks at FamilyFarmed have helped us create a vision and road map for growing our business larger than we ever thought possible before. The camaraderie and shared experiences of the other Fellows in the Accelerator, along with the resources available at 1871, has taught us new ways to collaborate.”

This spirit of collaboration will be on display at the Accelerator’s Demo Day event. The Fellows will share their stories about creativity, continuing business education, the importance of networking, and other factors that breed entrepreneurial success.

And in Frierson’s and Zeki’s case, faith and determination.

Read more about the Good Food Business Accelerator:

Good Food Business Accelerators Fellows to Show Their Skills at April 27 Demo Day

Accelerator Fellow Urban Canopy Goes Upstairs and Outside to Promote Farming in Chicago

Good Food Festival & Conference Starts Fast With Accelerator Discussion

Jenny Yang’s Growing Tofu Business is an Immigrant Food Story With a Modern Twist

dailyServing ‘Functional Food’ Products Aim at a Healthy-Conscious but in a Hurry Society

Illinois’ Living Water Farms Hits Accelerator to Expand Year-Round Local Growing

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