Having a family and a thriving startup don’t have to be mutually exclusive experiences, said Robyn Wagner, sharing her journey to build a food brand that lives up to legacy-rich Kansas City standards — with a twist all its own.
“If you really have an idea and you want to go for it, there’s somebody out there willing to help you,” Wagner, co-founder of Insta-Meals, said of the sauce startup’s 2018 launch and a peer group that includes the likes of Kansas City-sourced Spanish Gardens and K.C. Masterpiece.
Designed for use in a pressure cooker — and boasting such flavors as “Taco, Taco,” tangy buffalo, and sweet and spicy teriyaki — her products are about more than a bold palate, Wagner said: they inspire healthy meals that get families together around the dinner table.
Click here to shop Insta-Meal’s lineup.
“I always wanted to be able to have something that I felt good about serving to my family,” she explained, a byproduct of her personal journey with health and wellness and a craving for products that saved time in the kitchen.
“I have a 5-year-old daughter and she doesn’t really want me wasting my time over the stove, cooking. To be able to put dinner in my pot and walk away was key,” Wagner said. “One of the things that I was running into was there were no products that I could just dump everything in and walk away. I always had to prep the ingredients.”
With the realization came countless hours in the kitchen, as Wagner, a former Realtor, worked to get each sauce just right — a feat that quickly became a science experiment as she toyed with consistency and ingredients that wouldn’t burn inside a pressure cooker.
“It was a lot of trial and error, but there were definitely a lot of times where we’d be like, ‘OK, this teriyaki is really, really delicious but it gives me a burn notice,’” she said of early Insta-Meal trial runs. “It was a lot of testing and working with the test kitchen over at our manufacturer. They really had great knowledge of how to make sure that the flavors stayed when you were cooking with it.”
Insta-Meal sauces are produced by friends of Wagner and her husband at Spicin Foods in Kansas City, Kansas — home to such local brands as American Stockyard, Cowtown BBQ, Da’Bomb, and Pain is Good.
“We didn’t know exactly how to get my idea into a bottle and onto a shelf, but they held our hands through the whole process — and I think that’s just Kansas City for you,” she added.
In the case of Insa-Meal, her trio of sauces sit on a digital shelf, a process made even easier by Wagner’s and her husband’s extensive background in e-commerce.
“We help specialty food products get on Amazon. We help them launch on there and then we manage their account,” she explained of the couple’s primary business — branded A Bit Crunchy — and an initial source of inspiration for Insta-Meal.
“We’ve been doing [e-commerce] for a few years and really have been having a lot of success with some of these new innovative products.”
An entirely web-based sales engine has served as additional food for Insa-Meal amid the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, Wagner added.
“We definitely saw a big push in March and usually, as far as e-commerce goes, this is a slow season. July is typically your slowest month of the year in e-commerce — for any product line,” she said.
“It has not slowed down at all for us, which is a great problem to have.”
COVID’s unexpected boost
A blessing bottled in disguise, 2020 was supposed to be the year Insta-Meal found its way onto shelves in local grocery stores — one of Kansas City’s greatest assets, Wagner continued.
“People are shopping online and that’s where we’ve had to keep our direction going, but it definitely is my goal to see my products on the shelves at every grocery store I walk in,” Wagner said of her ultimate dream for the company.
“One of the unique parts of Kansas City is that our grocery stores are locally owned and not national chains. It gives a great opportunity for somebody like me to break into the grocery store.”
With the future of retail in question as consumers find new ways to shop, there’s never been a better time for e-commerce entrepreneurs — with many having found themselves on the front lines of food sales in the days of COVID-19, she added.
“We were very fortunate in that we had enough stock that we were able to see [which direction pandemic needs were going] and make sure that we had all of our products, not just our own, in stock on Amazon. And because food products became a priority, we were able to restock them easier than we would have been before.”
An additional blessing for Wagner has been additional family time. Months of quarantine have served as a reminder of Insta-Meals mission and reinforced its importance, Wagner said.
“My daughter came home for spring break in March and never went back to school. So it was such a relief to know that I could do the homeschooling that she needed and still have our business running just as it was before,” she said.
“It really didn’t matter because we were all home, working together and so we could help each other out. That’s why we got into the e-commerce business … and really this whole year of 2020 solidified we made the right choice. … We really are a Kansas City, small, family company.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.