With employee amenities like on-site childcare and an organic café, it’s obvious that Frontier Co-op’s philosophy of “Doing Good, Works” is baked into the brand’s way of doing business. CEO Tony Bedard acknowledges the distributor of spices and wellness botanicals has remained true to its “hippy” roots, even as it has expanded.
Founded in the Cedar Valley in 1976 by an environmentally and socially conscious collective, they were early adopters of fair trade and organic standards. Therefore, Frontier Co-op sources its spices, herbs and botanicals from around the world, and relies on an Iowa-based workforce to serve more than 50,000 member-owners and countless customers.
“We're committed to rural Iowa,” Tony said.
Headquartered in the tiny town of Norway (population 466), the sustainability-focused business employs roughly 550 people and has processing, bottling and distribution operations across four facilities in small towns outside of Cedar Rapids. While other companies may struggle to hire as they expand, Frontier Co-op has created innovative workforce solutions to overcome barriers to employment. That meant thinking differently about recruitment and retention while staying true to their core values.
“Our biggest motivation is, honestly, the needs of the business,” Tony said. “Unemployment was extremely low here in Iowa. We’re growing a lot, and we were having trouble finding people who were interested in coming to work in our factory. I was looking for solutions to our employment needs.”
They began to approach recruitment efforts with a more comprehensive outlook. Finding ways to connect with traditionally overlooked groups required setting people up for success both inside and outside the workplace.
“Anybody can buy a piece of equipment, but not everybody can figure out how to staff when there's nobody readily available,” Tony said. “We started to double down on that idea that there's human capital out there… that could fuel our growth.”
Supporting Working Parents
In the early days, Frontier Co-op staff would frequently rotate roles and responsibilities, including childcare, regularly. More than 80 percent of Frontier Co-op’s shift workers were women—many coming from surrounding farms to earn a second income and secure good health insurance. As the company grew and industry standards rose, collective leadership formalized family-friendly opportunities that proved critical for attracting and retaining these employees.
“When I came in 1991, I saw a whole different kind of company, and it really intrigued me,” Tony said. “Over the years, we kept building on that.”
Today, the company supports parents through all stages. Nursing moms and those returning from parental leave enjoy extra flexibility. Families continue to utilize benefits like the on-site subsidized childcare center and reimbursements.
“We have third generations going through childcare,” Tony said.
One current employee who attended the Frontier Co-op childcare as a kid now works alongside her mother while her own children utilize the program. Both employees and their children can enjoy an affordable lunch from the organic café that features the company’s products. Parents of older kids can take advantage of school pickup and drop-off services and even summer care.
The company’s unique workforce and corporate responsibility practices have earned accolades, including a national designation as a Best Place for Working Parents. But even with its significant financial and wellbeing employee benefits, Frontier Co-op recognized they needed to do even more to make employment opportunities accessible.
Breaking Down Barriers
The turning point came in 2017, when Tony toured a prison in Omaha. Inmates who were taking a business course pitched business plans to the visiting leaders Shark-Tank style.
“It was a game changer for me,” Tony said. “We started hiring out of that population…We hired our first returning citizen in 2017 and that person ended up being recognized by Iowa Job Honor Awards in 2018.”
Frontier Co-op began implementing strategies that culminated in their award-winning “Breaking Down Barriers to Employment” initiative. It aims to address systemic obstacles hindering employee success and economic mobility by providing support services, including access to subsidized childcare options, transportation, second chance hiring practices and apprenticeship and skills training programs. They have also expanded hiring to include immigrants and refugees, people who are unhoused and apprentices.
Through partnerships with local nonprofits like the Catherine McAuley Center and Willis Dady Homeless Services, Frontier Co-op has created pathways to success. Its wraparound services like a personal savings match program, on-the-job training, a daily pharmacy delivery option, and its soon-to-be developed English as a Second Language (ESL) program help drive stability in their workforce. The impact has changed lives and benefited the business.
“Our ‘Doing Good Works’ mission has a straight line, a tangible ROI that that I'm really proud of,” Tony said. “Every employee understands the role that they play in our success. Our scale of success means our scale of good gets greater.”