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In Case of Emergency: Disaster preparedness companies have found a natural home in Utah

Food storage emergency preparednessFew people could feel more at home than Harry Weyandt did on a mountain trail or a camp in the wilderness. From the moment he joined a Boy Scout troop, Weyandt carved out an identity as the ultimate Boy Scout.

His wilderness gear offered a moving inventory of tools, supplies, food and water that could be used for any scenario he might encounter away from home.

“My Boy Scout troop happened to be one that went hiking and camping every month,” Weyandt says. “I just really took to heart the old motto of ‘Be Prepared.’ I was always prepared for just about anything and everything that could have come my way while we were backpacking or on camp-outs.”

Weyandt’s philosophy of preparedness has carried over into his professional life in his role as founder and CEO of Nitro-Pak, one of Utah’s oldest emergency preparedness companies. What began as a small business out of his garage in Southern California in 1985 has grown into the nation’s largest mail-order company specializing in emergency preparedness supplies.

Nitro Pak has flourished since Weyandt relocated the company to Utah in 1994. The corporate headquarters in Heber City includes 44,000 square feet of showrooms, offices and warehouse space.

Utah has offered a fertile ground for the emergency preparedness industry as a whole. Many companies specializing in food storage and other emergency preparedness supplies are sprouting up all across the Beehive State and extending their reach far beyond Utah’s borders.

Fertile ground

Few industries can enjoy a more natural fit than emergency preparedness does in Utah. Much of it can be attributed to the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Teachings from past and current church leaders place a major emphasis on self-reliance. The idea of storing food, water, fuel and other essentials is an outgrowth of these teachings.

LDS Church members are encouraged to build up a three-month supply of food, a clean water supply and a financial reserve for themselves and their families. The church itself operates Welfare Square in Salt Lake City, which features a 178-foot, 300,000-bushel grain silo, fruit orchards, a milk-processing plant, a cannery and a bakery. All of it aids the LDS Church in producing long-term food storage to supply an extensive network of bishop’s storehouses inside and outside Utah.

Weyandt says emergency preparedness continues to be embraced by Utah residents because they have a firm understanding of what it takes. The cultural and religious atmosphere has hard wired into their collective DNA the idea that planning ahead can save headaches and heartache in times of trouble.

“When we think about preparedness, we’re really talking about a different form of insurance,” Weyandt says. “When it comes to the food storage side of things, I like to tell people food storage is the only insurance policy you get to eat. Really, that’s what you’re doing. You’re buying an insurance policy.”

Utah remains an important hub for an ever-burgeoning emergency preparedness industry. A large percentage of the leading companies in the industry have been founded in Utah or have relocated their corporate headquarters to the state.

Nationwide, approximately 3.7 million Americans classified themselves as survivalists or preppers in 2013. Three-month supplies of food, clothing, fuel and other essential supplies can cost thousands of dollars for an average-sized family. Hundreds of websites and forums are devoted to survivalist and emergency preparedness topics.

Fears of economic uncertainty and political unrest tend to be a driving force in expanding the emergency preparedness footprint—especially during presidential election years. More and more companies are popping up to cater to this market.

“There’s been a huge upswing in competition just in Utah,” says Lareen Strong, director of marketing for Food Insurance LLC. “When we got started back in 2005, there might have been us and maybe another company. Now there are a slew of companies in Utah. They all have their different take on it and they all have different approaches and items.”

Spreading the message

Blue Chip Group saw an opportunity to expand awareness of its Augason Farms product line and jumped into the pool with a big splash. In 2007, the company worked with Macey’s Supermarkets to introduce its product line of food storage essentials. These products debuted during Macey’s annual case lot sale.

Executives from the Blue Chip Group had modest goals for increasing brand awareness among Utah residents. But sales and distribution of their product line quickly exceeded expectations. In January 2007, they sold $2.2 million worth of product.

Soon, competing supermarket chains and warehouse stores were beating down the doors. They noticed the disruptive effect the Augason Farms brand had on the market and wanted a piece of the action. It opened the door for Blue Chip Group to expand its reach beyond Utah.

A decade later, the company distributes products in more than 250 Sam’s Clubs and 72-hour kits in 3,300 Wal-Marts across the nation. Building a national presence through offering brands like Augason Farms and Live Prepared in major retail outlets has made it easier for Blue Chip Group to grow its customer base and help simultaneously create and fill a demand for emergency preparedness products.

“Most of the time, we find that people think they might need something because they see something on TV or they hear it on the radio,” says Mark Augason, CEO of Blue Chip Group. “But they never react to it. So what we’ve done is really create distribution points where people don’t have to go find it. We’ve actually brought the food and the category to them.”

Other emergency preparedness companies in Utah have followed a similar blueprint in connecting with major retailers nationwide to reach a broader customer base. The Ready Project, a Salt Lake City-based company, has put together major distribution deals with Costco, Sam’s Club and Cabela’s.  It was one of the first emergency preparedness companies to also offer products through major online retailers like Overstock.

Although it maintains Utah roots, The Ready Project’s primary customer base now lies outside of the state. Approximately 1 percent of the company’s annual sales come from Utah residents—a data point that demonstrates just how rapidly the emergency preparedness industry is growing nationwide.

“It’s all outside of Utah,” says Dan Moss, co-founder of The Ready Project. “We don’t really market to the Utah crowd that much. We don’t advertise here. We don’t really market to the LDS crowd that much. That’s not been our focus, even though that’s the natural base. They’ve been marketed to plenty over the years, and most of them are doing something as far as preparedness.”

Untapped global markets are the next target. Emergency preparedness companies are looking overseas at making inroads in Europe, China, India and other places where the notion of being prepared for natural disasters, economic disruptions and political unrest could help them find multiple distribution points for their products.

It’s the next natural step for the industry for many of these Utah-based companies.

“We can see, internationally, there’s some massive opportunity,” Moss says. “That’s a big area for growth, whether it’s Japan or Europe or some of these other areas that don’t really have companies like this. There’s definitely potential and I see it continuing to grow. It’s not a crazy fast-growth industry, but as awareness gets out there and people really think about it, there’s plenty of room to grow.”

Educating retailers and customers

When the words “emergency preparedness” are dropped in a conversation, it can conjure up images of a hard-core prepper stockpiling supplies and hunkering down in a bunker awaiting the end of the world. This image has been popularized through disaster movies and TV shows like Doomsday Preppers. Such an image represents an isolated fragment of the customer base in the emergency preparedness industry.

There is some crossover between the outdoor recreation industry—another vibrant component in the Utah economy—and the emergency preparedness industry. Many of the same products used for food storage or building 72-hour kits are the same items used in backpacking or camping trips.

Many customers looking for emergency supplies are more likely to be gearing up for a weekend trek into the mountains than hunkering down to wait out Armageddon. Others are simply looking for help in preparing for a natural disaster. They are ordinary people you might find in any neighborhood.

This is the crowd emergency preparedness companies in Utah want to reach. They are targeting families and individuals who want to have food, water, clothing and other essential supplies on hand in case a natural disaster strikes and they need to evacuate their homes for a temporary period.

“It’s not always this huge end-of-the-world catastrophe,” Strong says. “It’s those little day-to-day things that happen, even here in Utah, with floods and fires and things like that.”

Government websites like Be Ready Utah offer helpful tips on how to plan for emergencies. Be Ready Utah covers topics ranging from what to do to prepare for children and pets during a natural disaster to creating an evacuation plan and building first-aid and hygiene kits.

Most people seeking out emergency preparedness supplies are often in the early stages of assembling those supplies. They know they need some food and water on hand and need to assemble a 72-hour kit. Knowing exactly what they need as they make a plan is a completely different matter.

Education becomes as important a component as selling.

“We just try to keep it very simple,” Moss says. “We don’t want to overwhelm people with a million options. We don’t sell a ton of different water filters, a ton of different types of fuel or a ton of different types of stoves. We have a handful of items that we feel are really good quality items and we offer those through various channels and through our own site.”

Many emergency preparedness companies offer their customers basic options to start small. They offer help in creating two types of kits: one that offers everything you need if you’re required to remain in your home for an extended period and a smaller version you can take with you if you need to evacuate to another area.

Some essentials in preparedness supplies include water or water filtration, food, personal hygiene items, a radio, flashlights and extra batteries, portable heaters, a can opener, sleeping bags, warm clothing, matches, a pocketknife and a first-aid kit.

Water is often the most overlooked component in emergency preparedness plans, but it is the most critical. At a minimum, each person needs a three-day supply of water that covers nutrition, hygiene and sanitation need.

Augason says people need to be prepared for a time when they don’t have access to running water because of extended disruptions to utilities. “Water is probably the easiest, cheapest way to be prepared and most people don’t even come close to having enough water stored in their house,” Augason says. “Usually, they have more food than they have water because we’re so used to turning the tap on and having water come out.”

Weyandt advises people building up their emergency preparedness supplies to do it a bite at a time. They should figure out what situations they need to prepare for based on where they live. Start off with a basic 72-hour kit and build from there.

The most important thing is doing it now rather than waiting until it’s too late. If you don’t act until you see something on the 6 o’clock news, you might not be able to take care of your needs when a disaster finally strikes.

“You’re preparing for something that you don’t know if it will ever happen,” Weyandt says. “You have to be prepared one minute too early rather than one minute too late, because then you’re reactive. Being prepared is being proactive.”

Be Ready Utah
Find suggested supply lists and other disaster information at beready.utah.gov

 Illustration by Bryan Beach