The cornfields come right up to the edge of Austin, Minn., which is the hometown of Hormel Foods and one of just a handful of small places left in America that a very big company still calls home. Nearly everything in Austin owes its existence to Hormel. They are bound together, and mostly at ease with their isolation and the fact that much of what people take for granted in the rest of the country has either not yet arrived or has already left. There are no Uber drivers. No Starbucks and no Toyota dealer. The Target closed last year. Staples, the year before. The only Airbnb option is a fifth-wheel trailer.
Hormel’s best-known product is Spam. It’s easy to joke about a company built on meat that comes in a can, but it turns out that Hormel is having the last laugh. For the past 10 years, it has been on a tear. Revenue has increased from $5.4 billion to $9.3 billion, boosting its ranking in the Fortune 500 by nearly 100 spots, to No. 304 this year. Earnings have more than doubled, the dividend has almost quadrupled, and the stock has returned roughly 400%. The growth has been fueled by a flood of new products: everything from peanut-butter snacks to single-serve turkey sticks to a food-service burger made with chicken, quinoa, and, yes, kale. All were developed in Austin—proof that innovation is defined by people, not zip codes.