FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — After two years of work, Ole & Lena’s frozen pizzas can now be found on shelves at six Walmart stores across the Red River Valley.
Shane Balken, who in 2019 sold his West Fargo Ole and Lena’s restaurant to focus on his frozen pizza venture, has dedicated the last two years to getting his pizzas on shelves inside the world’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer.
The process was lengthy but has ultimately proven to be worthwhile, Balken explained. “I’ve been working on it for probably about two years,” he told The Forum. “During that time I’ve just tried to remain diligent and do the best I could to just keep getting the information that they wanted.”
Work began when the Fergus Falls Walmart’s store manager expressed interest in carrying Ole & Lena’s frozen pizzas. Balken credited the store for providing “excellent” help getting the pizzas on shelves.
Even with the store manager’s buy-in, Balken still needed to work with Walmart’s corporate office to get Ole & Lena’s frozen pizzas on shelves. “It was a long process but I knew that it would be worth it at the end, so I just stuck with it,” he commented. “There were several times where it just felt like it wasn’t going to work out. I would hit walls in terms of information or not hearing back.”
In addition to Fergus Falls, Ole & Lena’s frozen pizzas are available at Walmart in Detroit Lakes, Dilworth and Wahpeton as well as both Fargo stores. He sells 28 different varieties of pizzas, including gluten-free options.
Even though summer is typically a slower season, sales have been strong at Walmart thus far, Balken reported. It’s allowed him to “ease into it,” he said.
Balken started offering Ole & Lena’s frozen pizzas for group fundraisers as well, which have broadened his geographic range. Whereas grocery store sales are limited to a roughly two-hour radius in Minnesota and North Dakota, fundraisers have a significantly further reach.
Fundraisers helped to supplement Ole & Lena’s restaurant sales during lean winter months when Balken described sales as “abysmal.”
The fundraising business has also enabled him to get his foot in the door at area grocery stores as well. “There have been several towns where I couldn’t seem to get my foot in the door for whatever reason,” Balken said.
He parlayed a successful first fundraiser with Breckenridge High School into getting Ole and Lena’s on shelves neighboring Wahpeton’s Econo Foods.
Catching on in Wahpeton started what he described as a domino effect. “From there it just took off,” Balken said.
Now, Ole and Lena’s frozen pizzas are also sold at 60 grocery stores in the area, including Cash Wise stores in the Fargo-Moorhead area and Fergus Falls’s Service Food Market.
Business was “good and bad” during the COVID-19 pandemic, Balken said. While the dozen fundraisers he had planned before the pandemic were canceled, grocery store sales went “through the roof.”
“I was fortunate to get through the pandemic in relatively good shape,” he remarked.
With the worst of the pandemic in the rearview mirror, Balken is ready to bolster his store offerings. Gaining a footing in Walmart has already helped boost his profile. “Right after I got into the Wahpeton Walmart, I got calls from some of the stores out west like Jamestown, Bismarck and Minot,” he said. “There’s some interest out there for me to be in there.”
The goal is to push further into western North Dakota. “I really wanted to be in Minot, but the distance was just too far. I had several fundraisers over there and they have been phenomenal,” he said. “Now with this Walmart deal coming on board I think now I can finally get a foothold out there and I think I can make it work.”
To handle the new demand, Balken is planning to hire part-time employees specifically to handle Walmart shipments. He said the next year “looks really promising,” though he wants to grow at a manageable pace.
“It took two years to get in and it was a challenge to stick with it, but now the real work has begun,” he concluded. “It’s exciting but at the same time there’s still a lot of work ahead.”