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Bean Sprouts & Green Sprouts

This is the story of a working mom who wanted to change the way children eat, and of course, it's become so much more. Shannon Seip and business partner Kelly Parthen are the owners of Bean Sprouts Cafe, a healthy kids' cafe and cooking school in Middleton. The cafe, which has opened a second location in the Madison Children's Museum, features a full menu (including baby food), cooking classes, and caters to kid's parties. But in trying to get people to think about childhood nutrition in a fun, family bonding way, the partners are taking their nutritional message in new directions.

That's Using the Old Bean

Seip and Parthen met in journalism (graduate) school at UW-Madison, but business school grads have reason to be envious. Not only do they operate a growing cafe, they have written a book, with help from their Executive Chef Carisa Dixon, titled Bean Appetit: Hip and Healthy Ways to Have Fun with Food. Bean Appetit is a recipe book with food-themed games, fun names for dishes, crafts, and activities. In addition to getting people to think about children's diets, the book illustrates how cooking can be a source of family fun and togetherness.

Their media savvy is a large part of their recipe for growth. Seip has appeared on Good Morning America, Martha Stewart Living Radio on Sirius, and in various publications. The business partners also write "BeansTalk," a monthly newsletter that reaches 2,000 subscribers. Earlier, they were the original authors of Cinematters, a nationally syndicated column that published in regional parenting magazines.

Bean Appetit earned a Mom's Choice Award, but recognition wasn't the driving force behind it. "It seemed like a natural extension after we launched our cooking classes, which I would shoot and edit for airing on public access here," noted Seip, author of three previous children's books. "It seemed like a logical next step, since we had the brand already built and we have an audience."

Seip is now pitching a syndicated kids' cooking show, also called Bean Appetit, and she's working with a production company in New York to develop content for what ideally will be a Saturday morning program. She has some of the start-up production costs figured out, but not the cost of a full season. Cost aside, Seip said television is an exciting opportunity to reach children who do not have a Bean Sprouts cafe in their town, and viewership in various markets could help determine where future Bean Sprout cafes are placed.

In 2011, Bean Sprouts' growing visibility will reach Hollywood — West Los Angeles to be precise. Seip, a native of San Francisco who attended UCLA, plans to open a Bean Sprouts near her collegiate stomping grounds. Familiar with the territory and still tapped into to her old university network, she has identified several potential stores on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, a boutique street with busy pedestrian traffic, and while she anticipates double the start-up costs she would have in Madison, the struggling L.A. real estate market should bring favorable lease rates. Add to that the potential for a Southern California partner from about 100 franchise inquiries, and the possibility of celebrity clients and others who can meet her price points, and it's clear she isn't doing this on a whim.

"I think there are only select markets where this concept would work," she noted. "It has to be health conscious, kind of forward thinking, and have some disposable income. We don't have 99-cent meals."

In Madison or L.A., schools aren't the market some might think because their fiscal constraints don't permit higher prices. At home, it's a different story, where Seip practices what she preaches with her children. Six-year-old Isaac tends to be a picky eater, but he has become more adventuresome at his mother's urging; at times, too adventuresome, with concoctions such as apple juice and chocolate milk.

While her encouragement can work against her, Seip reminds her kids and other kids that they don't have to like everything, but they should at least try everything unless they are allergic to it.

This advice gives kids the nudge to try new things, but it was a Cornell University study that provided additional insight. The study confirmed that if a playful name is given to food, children are 30% more likely to try it.

According to Seip, pesto is the best example of a food that kids surprisingly like. The fact that they can squirt pesto out of a bottle and into the shape of a spider web certainly helps, but as Seip confirmed at home, a fun name like Percy's Pesto Pasta, taken from the name of a green train popular in children's literature, is the clincher.

To manage the growth of her business, Seip has surrounded herself with experienced business advisors. She has enlisted the help of Rich Ciurczak, a successful business man who also is advising local businesses like RP's Pasta, where he helped streamline the product line to drive profitability. Ciurczak, who ran an educational catalog company, is serving as vice president of business development.

Other help has come from surprising sources such as Gale Gand, the noted Chicago restaurantuer and author who once hosted a show on the Food Network. As a member of the "Bean Team," Gand serves as a menu mentor for Bean Sprouts. "She helped us with our original menu at no charge because she believes in our mission," Seip said. "She told me that 'it usually costs people $30,000 or $40,000 to hire me, but I believe in what you're doing.' She's helping us for free."

Obama Endorsement

It also doesn't hurt to have the First Lady of the United States taking up the same banner. Michelle Obama's campaign to fight childhood obesity has placed an even brighter spotlight on what Bean Sprouts is trying to accomplish. "Oh, my goodness, that's fantastic," Seip enthused. "I've got a thank-you letter from her and Barack in my inbox. We sent them one of our cookbooks."

Seip also offered to help the Obamas in promoting this cause, and she certainly would not object if the First Lady made a guest appearance on her first TV show. "That is actually in our plans," Seip admitted. "I don't know if it's in her plans, but it's in our plans."

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