When Joel was eight years old, he loaded his wagon with the pancake mix his mother had made (stuffed into brown paper bags) and roamed the neighborhood in search of hungry customers.
“The little red wagon was the root of Kodiak Cakes,” Clark remembers, although he didn’t realize he was building a future business at the time.
In 1995, when Clark’s brother, John, wanted to start a business, their mother suggested he try her pancake mix recipe again. The brothers tinkered with the recipe until it was healthy, tasty and easy to use, and persuaded local gift shops to carry their product.
Two years later, John offered Joel Clark ownership of the business. “I told John I’d take it, put a little office in my parents’ basement, and started running Kodiak Cakes,” Clark says.
The business grew, but gradually. It took 16 years for Kodiak Cakes to hit a million dollars. The company’s slow growth was discouraging for Clark, who considered quitting multiple times. The uncertainty of not knowing whether he could pay himself, whether his dream was destined for failure or whether he’d land in the unemployment line haunted him constantly.
Clark persevered by setting goals. He created six-month benchmarks and promised himself that if he failed, he’d get a real job. Each time he reached a goal, he repeated the process. “A lot of people don’t give their business enough time to see if it can work,” Clark says in hindsight.
Today, Kodiak Cakes is thriving. With 43 employees, multiple products and $50 million in revenue, Kodiak Cakes plans to become a billion-dollar company. That’s a lofty goal, but Clark believes his team can help make miracles happen.
By creating a culture where people believe in the product, Clark establishes an environment for employees to innovate. “There’s no such thing as a self-made man or woman,” he says. “If anything becomes successful, it’s because of a lot of smart people that contributed.”
Clark has counted on his employees since the company’s early days, when Kodiak Cakes’ first full-time employee, Cameron Smith, set up a meeting with a Target buyer in Minneapolis. Clark couldn’t attend the meeting, and Smith later reported that he was shaking the entire time he cooked pancakes for the buyer.
Fortunately, she loved the product and distributed it to 40 stores. Soon Target took Kodiak Cakes nationwide, where it outsold other brands. Thanks in part to Smith’s skills in both the Target meeting and a subsequent Shark Tank appearance with Clark, demand skyrocketed so much that Clark had to borrow money just to fulfill orders.
Shark Tank wasn’t Kodiak Cakes’ only brush with fame. One day, the actor Kevin Costner called to tell Clark he was a huge fan and to ask if he could feature Kodiak Cakes in an upcoming movie. “And I told him, ‘No, I’m the fan,’” Clark says. He and Smith flew to New Orleans to make pancakes for the entire crew.
From his parents’ basement to a Shark Tank appearance to a Kevin Costner film, Clark’s mother’s recipe has been through plenty of ups and downs.
Not bad for a company started by an eight-year-old boy pulling a little red wagon.