PARK CITY — Joel Clark was 8 years old when he was introduced to his life’s work.
Not that he knew it at the time. All he knew was that he’d helped his mom, Penny, fill his red wagon with about 20 brown paper sacks of her special recipe pancake mix and now he got to go into their neighborhood and sell them.
The Clarks lived on a cul-de-sac in East Millcreek, not far from the University of Utah campus, where Joel’s dad, Richard, taught at the Institute of Religion. Penny’s full-time job was staying home and raising Joel and his four older brothers and sisters. Occasionally, since working in the Church Education System for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was never known for producing millionaires, the family would come up with ways of bringing in a little extra money. Hence, the pancakes.
Plus, they were nutritious. Joel’s mother was into eating right. She had her own wheat grinder, she grew sprouts, she made green smoothies for breakfast.
“If you came to our house and opened up the fridge it’d be full of lettuce,” remembers Joel. “There wasn’t any, like, food to eat; you had to make food at our house.”
After he sold the 20 sacks of pancake mix he quickly forgot about the enterprise, but his older brother Jon didn’t. In 1995, when Jon decided he wanted to start a company, he remembered his mother’s excellent whole-wheat pancakes.
He named the business Kodiak Cakes, because, one, he liked the hearty, rustic image of bears, and two, he’d always dreamed of going salmon fishing on Kodiak Island in Alaska.
Joel was in college at the time and was recruited to make the rounds of Park City, Jackson Hole, Sun Valley and other Western towns peddling his mom’s recipe — this time in his car.
After two years, Jon had graduated and moved on to a career in hospital management. He left the company, such as it was, to Joel.
In between graduating from the University of Utah, getting an MBA from Oxford University in England and starting work as a consultant, Joel hung on to Kodiak Cakes on the side. Total revenue was barely $30,000 a year, but he could always see potential.
When annual revenue grew to $150,000 by 2004, he dropped his other jobs and talked his father, 65 and freshly retired, into joining him. Father and son grew the business, slowly but steadily, to $800,000 revenue by 2009, at which point Richard retired for good.
That’s when Joel posted a “help wanted” notice on the jobs board at the University of Utah. He couldn’t offer much in salary — the business was still pretty much hand to mouth — but there was always that potential.
A kindred spirit named Cameron Smith answered the call. Like Joel, Cameron’s father worked as a church seminary and institute teacher. Like Joel, he knew what it was like to grow up “scrappy.” Like Joel, he did not feel entitled.
“Here was this incredibly optimistic, proactive guy with tons of energy, right out of school, who didn’t see obstacles,” says Joel.
In other words, pretty much himself a dozen years ago.
“He was exactly what I needed.”
Things started ramping up. In 2012 they got their first order with a national chain, Target. Then, in 2014, they made an appearance on the TV show “Shark Tank” and added “Protein Power Cakes” to their product line — pancakes that were loaded with double the grams of protein of regular Kodiak Cakes.
The “Shark Tank” episode didn’t result in a deal with the sharks — because Joel and Cameron weren’t willing to give up 50% of the company and turned down the offers — but it did result in a big increase in sales because of the national exposure. And the timing was perfect because emphasizing protein, it turned out, was suddenly the hip thing to do. People were adding protein to everything. It was a foodie fad. Power Cakes were instantly cool.
“Millennials loved us,” says Joel. “College kids started making pancakes in their dorms.”
Before Power Cakes, according to Joel and Cameron, the pancake category nationwide was about a $330 million niche that hadn’t grown in years. Now, as other pancake mix companies have joined Kodiak in coming up with innovations to upgrade their brands, it’s close to $600 million, or nearly double what it was less than 10 years ago.
The rising tide has landed Kodiak Cakes front and center in all the national chains: Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Target and so forth. It would be harder to say where Kodiak isn’t.
Yearly revenue is up to $200 million and climbing.
To put that into perspective, Kodiak Cakes sells 17 million boxes of pancake mix every year. That breaks down to 42,000 every day, 1,900 every hour and 42 every minute.
Thanks to lessening COVID-19 restrictions, the made-in-Utah company was able to recently move into its brand-new headquarters in Park City, where most of its 90 employees are housed, along with a 15-foot tall Kodiak bear that stands guard out front.
Posing for a photo with Cameron in front of the bear, Joel reflected on just how far, and how unlikely, the family business has come.
“I think my mom’s blown away that this worked,” he said. “I think we’re all kinda blown away.”
Still, for all the growth, the recipe’s never really changed. They’re still making nutritious whole wheat pancakes, still grinding their own wheat — and Joel’s still out there selling them, minus the red wagon.
Correction: A previous version incorrectly said Richard Clark taught seminary at Skyline High School. He taught at the University of Utah Institute of Religion.