So how does one go from zero desire to ever be in a food business and no marketing or business experience, to a solopreneur known as “the Crock-Pot lady?” For one, it takes a huge leap out of one’s comfort zone to go from there to “this is actually what I see myself doing for years.” I sat down with Maggie Drabczynski, the founder of “Just Crock It” of McHenry to learn more about what was only supposed to be a side job selling some meals here and there just to keep her a little bit busier to what it has become today.
A Business Built on Giving
You might say that Just Crock It was a business just waiting to happen. Maggie explained how she had actually been making these meals for her own family for the last five or six years. Talking on the phone one day with her mother, who liked them so much herself, while making some meals, her mother offered to tell her friends about them. Rather than bothering pulling together the recipes when her mother’s friends asked, Maggie started making the meals for her mother’s friends, and everyone liked this so much they suggested that she should start selling them.
Maggie, coming from a legal background, changed careers a few years ago to become a stay-at-home mom when she became pregnant with her firstborn. And now, after the birth of her second child and a few years as a stay-at-home mom, this idea of making and selling pre-packaged meals as just a little sideline job presented itself.
Officially launching in January of 2021, it quickly became clear that this was going to be more than just a sideline thing when within the first two weeks Just Crock It sold almost 80 meals! It really took off and got popular really fast.
But this wasn’t even the original plan.
Maggie actually started with aspirations for a nonprofit that would provide meals for underprivileged and in-need families. But for a beginning entrepreneur, she quickly found that to be a very difficult and complicated thing to do, especially when you are starting out and have no idea what you are doing. Not that starting an entirely new business from scratch is exactly easy to begin with!
While the business structure might have shifted, the foundation didn’t. Even as a startup, Maggie knew she still wanted to give back as fast as possible, specifically with No Child Goes Hungry, with families that need extra help, and basically just helping out the community.
A couple of key initiatives are with the United Way of Greater McHenry County and Home of the Sparrow. One dollar of every order that comes into Just Crock It goes back out to the United Way. She also, very cleverly, combines Just Crock It delivery orders with donation drives for Home of the Sparrow…putting out a list of what is needed and offering to pick up these items while making order deliveries. Just Crock It also partnered with Locker’s Flowers in McHenry to provide flowers and free meals for Mother’s Day for moms in the Home of the Sparrow shelter.
Maggie’s even planning to participate in the DamYak Challenge next month (July 17th, 2021) to help raise awareness and funds for Kids In Need McHenry County, which pretty adventurous for a self-proclaimed non-kayaker!
So in a matter of months, Just Crock It was born…from giving away meals to family and friends, to launching, to already giving back to the community.
Cooking Outside the Box
Talking with Maggie, three core principles really stood out.
One is to simplify meals. Look in any cookbook in your kitchen and you can find meals that often take as long or longer to prep as they do to cook. Vegetables need washing, peeling, and chopping. Meats may have their own pre-prep requirements, and of course, all that prep leaves post-meal cleanup. None of which factors in the time in front of the stove and time away from your family, or just relaxing.
The advent of any number of pre-packaged subscription meal services hasn’t necessarily remedied that either. Often those meals still leave the slicing, dicing, and chopping to you as well. This might be fine for someone wanting the step-by-step instruction to learn how to perfect their skills in the kitchen, but Just Crock It aims to help reduce your time in the kitchen altogether.
Just Crock It simplifies the meal prep by pre-prepping vegetables, meats, and sauces. Depending on the meal you want to prepare, you may have to prepare additional complementary sides or provide the buns for sandwiches, etc., but much of the heavy lifting will be taken care of for you.
Another core principle is trying to take on what may be one of the greatest kitchen challenges…simplifying meals while also making them healthier. Let’s face it, these two goals often seem to contradict one another. Sure you can buy store-bought pre-packaged meals that have little or no prep needs, but they often come with a whole list of artificial flavors and preservatives.
Just Crock It meals are vacuum packed and frozen, pre-packaged with raw meat, vegetables, and often the seasonings and sauces for the meal. There are no antibiotics, MSG, or additional preservatives added so they are good in the freezer for two or three months.
The other is to minimize food waste. Combined with trying to eat healthier, this can be especially challenging for smaller households who find themselves unable to utilize all of their fresh fruits and vegetables before they go bad. But this can also be a challenge with subscription boxes as well when the meals don’t get made or you forget to pause a subscription.
Just Crock It is not a subscription service, so you simply buy exactly what you need and want when you want it. The meals come frozen, so you only thaw when you are ready to use them, and Just Crock It can modify to meet your needs, such as splitting a 6-serving meal into 3 pre-packaged 2-serving meals.
Because of this, there is some lead time involved. To maintain the freshest meals, Just Crock It employs a just-in-time process. Generally, this means that orders come in one day. She then determines what is needed and orders up the supplies for those meals for delivery the next day. The following day, the supplies come in and the orders are prepared. vacuum packed, and frozen. In some cases, those meals might be available for pickup from Hidden Pearl Coffee in McHenry that day or may go out for delivery the next day. So while you can’t just run to the store, you can have fresh, healthy meals on hand in around two to three days.
Most of all, her biggest tip is to have fun with the meals. While these meals can be complete on their own, she also encourages people to use them as a base for their own creations. Experiment, add your own take to them, and make them your own.Maggie’s tip
Recipe for Success?
Being locally focused, Maggie is trying to work with local suppliers as she can. Already a long-term customer herself of Patyk’s Farm in Richmond, Just Crock It will utilize them for some of the fresh vegetables. Unfortunately, current drought conditions are making it more challenging to rely solely on local producers.
Additionally, Just Crock It requires fresh meats so they can be prepared and then frozen for the meals. This does present a challenge to stay local for vendors that may only be able to sell frozen meats themselves. But she does like staying local when she can, even down to using local companies like Totally Kustom Co for supplies, shirts, and marketing materials.
One thing is certain though, Just Crock It’s recipe is flexible.
No surprise, the company is named after the initial concept of pre-packaged crockpot meals. But after hearing customers asking about meals for the Instant Pot, she explored that option. While initially Instant Pot hesitant, after buying one and trying it, she was a quick convert, wondering how she did without for so many years herself!
Always working to improve, Maggie is now testing and in some cases reformulating the meals to also be Instant Pot friendly wherever she can. This is also helping to tackle one of the biggest challenges customers were facing…the ability to go from freezer to plate without thawing.
And now with the height of summer before us, Just Crock It has pivoted again with the introduction of grill-ready meals. Maggie confessed that she loves to grill, but hates all the prepping. Just Crock It takes care of chopping the vegetables, seasoning, and marinating meats, leaving the grilling to you.
Hidden Kitchen Connection
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges to starting a commercial food business is acquiring a commercial kitchen. Fortunately for Maggie, she didn’t need to rely on the traditional capital funding approach, she just needed to be creative.
Enter Dan and Alta of Hidden Pearl Coffee. Being a Hidden Pearl regular herself and already an acquaintance of Dan’s from the old location, together they saw a winning combination. Hidden Pearl has a commercial kitchen and space for Just Crock It to use as needed.
As an aside for business owners, this creative, mutually beneficial collaboration is absolutely brilliant. Sure, it came to fruition based on a pre-existing connection, but it doesn’t have to be limited by that.
Are you a business owner who has some under-utilized resources? Perhaps there is an existing or startup business that needs limited access to equipment or another resource? Maybe there is mutual benefit in collaboration. It may be time to reformulate some traditional business recipes as well!
What’s On The Menu?
Every month, Maggie tries to add at least three to four meals. This means there’s always something new to try and the menu continues to grow. Just Crock It recently added wings, will be adding pulled pork too, is looking to add more grilled meats late June or early July, and for the fall, maybe more comfort foods like soups to warm your soul in the winter months.
Maggie continues to research and test recipes, tweaking them and customizing them for Just Crock It. This also includes flexibility for customers, including gluten-free options, dairy-free options, and even less spicy options when need be. In general, the meals are seasoned just to taste, allowing customers the flexibility to add more on their own terms. And she remains open to customer needs, even featuring a “Special Requests” section for each meal when you order.
Honey Garlic Chicken and Veggies is popular because it’s literally everything in one pot. People have made it not just in crockpots but in Instant Pots, on the stove, and even on the grill, and it’s delicious any way you try it. It’s made with antibiotic-free, skinless and boneless chicken thighs; potatoes, carrots, and green beans; in an aromatic honey garlic sauce. Everything is packaged separately, so you can make it any way you want to.
Next up is the Honey Sesame Chicken, which is made with antibiotic-free, skinless and boneless chicken breasts; chopped onions, garlic, honey, tomato paste, soy sauce, and olive oil. Favorites are rounded out with the Lemon Garlic Chicken, which is again made with antibiotic-free, skinless and boneless chicken breasts in a lemon garlic sauce, and a recommended serving is on top of spaghetti or your favorite pasta.
She recently rolled out a Beef Stew, which is made with tender beef, celery, potatoes, and carrots in a delicious sauce, which is gaining a lot of popularity.
Not letting her off the hook though, I had to know what Maggie’s own favorites were:
So definitely the wings. The Chicken Parmigiana (chicken breasts in a creamy tomato and cheese sauce), the Lasagna Soup with Meatballs (beef meatballs in a lasagna marinara sauce with spinach and cannellini beans), and the Honey Garlic Chicken and Veggies are popular too in my household.Maggie’s personal favorites
She also mentioned that the Chicken Parmigiana was one of the surprising hits, saying that the sauce really makes it amazing, and it’s very flexible…any kind of pasta, or served on anything, add vegetables to it, whatever you want.
Not Without Challenges
Maggie admits that Just Crock It hasn’t been without its challenges. Beyond finding a kitchen, she’s tackled marketing, in part by being very active on social media as well as having a members-only forum on the Just Crock It website, which has really helped her connect with customers and reach out for their feedback and input.
And like anything new, the beginning involved a lot of experimentation on how to best package the meals. This evolved to packaging vegetables separately so the end customer has more control over how they want to prepare the meal to their preferences. Staying open-minded to an ongoing learning process and being open to customer feedback has really helped Just Crock It remain flexible.
Success has brought its own challenges as well. April presented a new challenge…volume. Orders coming in faster than they could be processed meant the hard task of informing customers of longer wait times for orders. But maintaining taste and quality was more important than finding shortcuts in order fulfillment.
So what does the future hold for Just Crock It?
Bigger and reaching more people. Today it is “just” Maggie, so there’s definitely a hard limit, but in the future, perhaps bringing on employees. And while not in the immediate plans, pursuing other partnerships for pick-up locations and eventually shipping, to complement the current collaboration with The Hidden Pearl and delivery services, which are mostly handled by Maggie’s husband Tom and brother Alex and currently serving McHenry, Kane, and Lake Counties–so “just Maggie” is actually backed by a great team of family, friends, and local vendors who all want to see her succeed! But, these are more long-term plans, and maintaining product quality and affordability seems to remain the guiding priority.
Who Are Just Crock It Customers?
Maggie says her primary target was working families and single parents. Being able to provide a budget-friendly alternative for them to provide a healthy meal for their family and not worry about the antibiotics, preservatives, and artificial flavors–and that guilty-mom/dad “another takeout night” feeling. But she’s also been pulling customers in the older and younger demographics as well. Everyone is kind of getting together and seeing this as something that they can work into their dinners.
And maybe that’s just it. Over the last year, we’ve all had to pivot and adapt. We might have had to reduce or stop eating out at our favorite restaurants. We started getting groceries delivered. Restaurants reacted and started takeout and delivery–some of which may never have offered those before. With everyone home, we may have reacted to a greater sense of urgency to eat healthier…or struggled, even more, to do so.
Now, as we all come out on the other side, our own shopping and dining repertoire has adapted. And maybe we’re not willing to give that up and revert back to what it was before. Just Crock It isn’t out to replace your grocery shopping, or even dining out or takeout. Maggie confessed that they love takeout, but like many of us have found, that can get expensive quickly.
So Just Crock It serves as one more alternative in your repertoire, fitting in there as a complement to both your grocery as well as your restaurant options, because if for no other reason, there will be days when you just have to say….Just Crock It!
The Hidden Pearl…love the small-town feel and welcoming vibe to regulars and new customers alike. Veteran’s Park in McHenry for the farmers market. Jexals Wing-Zeria. Strolling down Riverside. Foxy’s. Most of all, really excited about what McHenry is doing right now.Some of Maggie’s own McHenry County favorites
I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with Maggie and learning more about her new venture, and can’t wait to see where it goes from here!
If you enjoyed our first McHenry Life Spotlight, please become a Lifer by joining right now (it’s free!), and then we’d would love to hear what you think in the comments below!
If you are already a Just Crock It fan, please hop over to the Just Crock It listing and share your experience! Sharing your experiences on McHenry Life is a great way to say thanks and help promote the businesses you love!
As part of our first Spotlight Story and first Giveaway Sweepstakes (below), Maggie wanted to offer an extra special bonus to McHenry Life readers. While an official expiration date hasn’t been set, this is a limited-time offer that gives you 10% off your order at Just Crock It!
Just Crock It Sweepstakes!
The Just Crock It sweepstake has ended. Thanks to all who participated, and thanks to Just Crock It for cosponsoring our very first giveaway! For the results and information on the sweepstake, see our Sweepstakes page.