Keene-grown food business lands Walmart account

Cori Deans, left, and Small Town Cultures Head of Sales Stephen Hager, right, pose with a representative for Walmart at October’s pitch competition in Bentonville, Arkansas. (Provided photo)

Over the past 18 months, North Country-based company Small Town Cultures, which specializes in raw, fermented probiotic foods, has transitioned from a small operation in Keene to a nationally-distributed brand with a 4,000-square-foot production facility in Plattsburgh.

This year, the company’s products will roll out in 500 Walmart locations, a major win for Lake Placid native Cori Deans, who founded Small Town Cultures and once operated it from her kitchen in Keene.

The company’s growth has been rapid. Their products were picked up by Whole Foods at the end of 2021 after the Amazon-owned chain found them online and reached out to Deans.

“Whole Foods is going really well,” Deans said. “Whole Foods global actually invited us to pitch them, and we launched on the west coast with Whole Foods and they added more products in our existing locations. That was pretty cool and wild.”

Whole Foods has not been the only expansion in recent years. In 2022, The Fresh Market supermarkets started carrying Small Town Cultures at their 159 locations from Saratoga Springs to Florida. The company was also invited to pitch to Tops Friendly Markets, Price Chopper and Market 32. Deans expects her products to hit their shelves in the coming months. However, the company’s biggest opportunity yet came in October when Deans was invited to join a multi-round pitch competition with retail behemoth Walmart.

Fermented red onions, one of Small Town Cultures’ best-selling products, will hit Walmart shelves in the coming year. (Provided photo)

“Essentially, it’s an initiative to support small- and medium-sized businesses with manufacturing in the USA. So, I think they had, like, 14,000 applications. Of that they heard 1,200 pitches. We were invited to do an in-person pitch in Bentonville, Arkansas,” Deans said.

According to Deans, the Walmart pitch was a massive production — less like a competition and more like a conference.

“The day before, there’s this big event where you talk to other companies that have gone through this process,” Deans said. “They had The Rock do a virtual talk and Mike from ‘Dirty Jobs’ was there doing a talk.”

Walmart does not have a set number of pitches it accepts from this yearly competition. Last year, the number was around 300. This year, Deans said, the number was more like 50 or 60. Small Town Cultures was one of the lucky “golden ticket” winners — three of its most popular products will be carried in what Deans estimates will be about 500 of the more than 10,500 Walmart locations in the coming year.

Though Small Town Cultures has been able to reach its target audience — people predisposed to purchasing raw, fermented foods — through its partnership with Whole Foods, Deans hopes that the Walmart deal will allow the company to start spreading the good news about probiotics to more apprehensive customers.

“We’re a mission-based company looking to kind of expand both the appeal of fermented foods as well as the accessibility,” she said. “So, it means we have to make products people want to eat and they like, and then we have to be on the store shelves where they actually shop and at a price they can afford. What we have in the pipeline for 2024 is really going to help us with that second part, that accessibility part, of making fermented foods easier to purchase.”

Deans expects that Walmart will pick up Small Town Cultures’ three top-selling products — fermented red onions, turmeric kimchi and traditional sauerkraut — and, due to lack of comparable products on the retailer’s shelves, the products will likely do well. She also hopes that the products’ specific placement in the produce section will bolster sales as well as visibility of fermented foods.

“One of the things we were really kind of strongly advocating for (in the Walmart pitch) was to make sure our products were in the produce section, and preferably in with the plant-based meats and the fridges where you have those next-level healthy options in produce,” Deans said. “Because produce is well-lit, it’s gorgeous, it’s colorful and that’s where you first enter the store and you start crafting your meals for your family. That’s where we wanted to be and we kind of lucked out that all retailers have agreed to put us in that section.”

Deans said this expansion will “at least double the company overnight.”

“So, we’re hiring,” she said. “We do have time to find the right candidates and train them in our company culture and food safety and the fermentation process as we onboard with these retailers.”

The company is also investing in more equipment — specialized, automated machines — to keep up with the demand, a stark difference from its origins as a home-fermentation project.

Deans started the company about a decade ago with a deeply personal mission of treating her chronic illness, Crohn’s Disease, which made it painful for her to eat and challenging for her to digest food properly. Her medication wasn’t working for her anymore, so she decided to do her own research. She began trying to improve her digestive and gut health with fermented foods. After only one month, Deans said she no longer needed her medication to manage the pain. It was gone.

She started out only fermenting for herself but soon began to churn out larger orders from her sister Kayte Billerman’s space, Good Bite Kitchen, which was located on Main Street in Lake Placid at the time. She later invested in a kitchen of her own in Keene and sold her products at Cedar Run in Keene, eventually expanding to other small retailers across the area that sell healthy, local foods, including Nori’s in Saranac Lake and Green Goddess in Lake Placid. Her products also started appearing on menu items at some local restaurants and coffee shops, such as Old Mountain Coffee Co. in Keene Valley. Though the company has undergone sizeable growth since then, Deans said it still feels like a passion project to her.

“We just want people to eat probiotic-rich fermented foods. Like, that’s it. That’s the whole plan. That’s it,” she said. “So if we can just keep making sure that we’re where our customer is, and we’re listening to our customer and providing them with options that they get excited about, I think there’s a good chance we can continue doubling size year over year.”

Deans has her eye on “nice conventional retailers,” such as Hannaford and Wegmans, next. After that, she’d like to tackle the restaurant industry, supplying fermented foods to fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle.

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