Stuart Rowland was getting very fed up.
He had been dealing with fluctuating weight for a number of years, with his heaviest being 310 pounds in 2012. He tried several diets, each of which didn’t produce the results he desired.
“Being overweight has always been a struggle in my entire life,” Rowland said. “I tried all of them.”
But through persistence and a bit of inspiration, Rowland found a way to lose weight for good, which also gave him a way to share it with the public. It became the genesis for his still-growing business, called Clean Cookin’, which now has nearly 30 employees.
Clean Cookin’ is a company which offers pre-made frozen meals designed for people to eat healthy. Meals can be bought at stores in Fort Smith, Van Buren and Fayetteville, while Rowland is planning to add another store in Bentonville. He also has plans to expand his business into neighboring states, and hopes within five years that Clean Cookin’ can be franchised nationwide.
“It’s two totally different things and people don’t necessarily see that, that losing weight is one thing and gaining health is another,” Rowland said. “So that’s kind of what Clean Cookin’ is emphasizing is gaining health.
“I like to tell everybody you’ll never lose a pound going in the gym because it’s all in the kitchen. If you want to lose weight, change your diet. If you’re trying to get healthier, go to the gym.”
After he started Clean Cookin’ four years ago, Rowland lost a total of 94 pounds and has been able to maintain a healthy eating lifestyle.
“It’s always been super-frustrating to me (to lose weight), because I have the body type that can get really strong and put on a ton of muscle and had nothing to show for it because you’re just fat,” he said. “I’ve always struggled to lose weight and that was always my goal.”
In 2015, while he was working full-time as a mechanic, Rowland decided to use the principles he had learned as a mechanic, applying it to his newest weight-loss idea by going online. At the time, he had weighed 294 pounds.
“Just like everything I did when I was a mechanic, I got on YouTube and figured it out,” he said. “I just started using the same tools I had for (fixing) cars to basically apply that to the human metabolism.
“I did a lot of research, I spent countless nights just watching videos, learning, reading articles, teaching myself basically nutrition. Learning how to eat, what to eat, what foods are good and basically learning that everything that we’ve ever been taught about nutrition is a lie, and it’s been taught to us by companies trying to sell us food.”
Rowland then started putting the pieces together and tried it out on himself.
“I experimented with high-protein diets, low-carb diets, high-carb diets, vegan,” he said.
“I don’t have any history in the restaurant business; I never worked in a kitchen a day in my life. Honestly, it was just experimenting.”
The basic concept Rowland utilized was to have three food groups instead of four.
“You’ve got meat, which encompasses dairy as well; proteins, like vegetables and then you have carbohydrates, those are the three food groups and basically, you try to eat an equal portion of each one at each meal,” he said.
The meal Rowland began eating for his grand experiment comprised of baked chicken, broccoli and sweet potatoes. It’s now called the No. 2 meal for Clean Cookin’ and Rowland considers it his favorite.
“To me, that was the perfect meal prep that somebody could eat legitimately every single meal of every single day,” he said.
With Rowland getting the results, he decided to share his weight loss experiment with others.
He began preparing meals out of his own kitchen for some friends on the side and delivering those meals to them. But gradually, a snowball effect took place.
“They told other people, and it went from five people to 10 the next week; then to 26 the third week,” Rowland said. “Then my wife said I can’t do this in our kitchen.”
The next step was to buy a food trailer, and Rowland was able to set it up in a storage yard in Figure Five north of Van Buren. While he was able to have a space to prepare meals, the problem was Rowland couldn’t get anybody to come to Figure Five to pick those up.
So in order for Rowland to stay in business, he had to make deliveries. He would go to various schools and medical facilities; then he decided to place a freezer in several locations to where people could order online and pick those up there at their convenience.
“First, I was delivering it fresh to people, unfrozen and all that, but I was finding that waste was becoming a huge problem, and that was causing my overhead to go through the roof,” he said. “So I was trying to figure out ways to preserve the food without adding preservatives, and the simplest answer was to freeze it. As long as the food’s frozen, you start the natural digestion process using the enzymes.”
But as was the case when he started distributing meals to others, another snowball effect took place. His meals were being heavily sought after, to where Rowland had no room to place those in the freezers.
Eventually, his next solution was to establish stores. He found a place in Van Buren designed to hold nearly 2,600 meals, which are placed in a total of 32 chest freezers.
Then, Rowland decided to eliminate online ordering, utilizing a current setup to where one can go into the stores and receive the orders on the spot. Meals are also prepared in a kitchen located at a former convenience store in Van Buren.
“It kept growing and growing, and now there are two full storefronts which hold 4,000 meals,” Rowland said. “I purchased three more walk-in freezers, and now every store has four stand-up freezers and a walk-in freezer.”
Even with a rapidly expanding business, Rowland has made it a point not to expand on the cost of his meals.
“I feel that food should be affordable, and I honestly feel that’s been one of the keys of our success, is I’ve hit the price point right on the head,” he said. “Everybody’s willing to spend five dollars on a meal whether it’s good, bad or ugly, and the fact that our food is delicious, good for you and affordable, it’s the trifecta.
“That’s what I’m most proud of is that I’ve been able to do all of this and not raise prices, not ever. My prices start at $5 to my friends at my house and they’re still $5, so even through inflation and overhead and all of these things, it’s been really fun to not have to raise prices.”
And Rowland, who was born in New York and raised in Connecticut before coming to Fort Smith in 2006, continues to stay on the go with his business.
He also finds time to spend with his family, which consists of his wife Stefanie, who he has been married to for nearly five years. The couple has a 2-year old daughter, Ripley. Stuart also has a 12-year-old son, Xander, from a previous marriage.
“I’m so blessed to be doing what I do, I love what I do and I love that I get to help people on a daily basis and make a living doing it,” Rowland said. “Obviously, it’s the American dream coming true, but to be honest I don’t have time to reflect on it because I’ve been so busy. … The fact that it just keeps growing, it’s all positive.
“I can’t put enough emphasis on how lucky I feel to be doing this. I had no idea what this would become and it’s so far exceeded my wildest dream that at this point, it’s all just amazing and I’m just completely grateful that the community has supported us.”
This story originally appeared in the Times Record.