Soylent, the meal replacement beverage invented and favored by Silicon Valley bros who’d rather work than eat, is a hit in a surprising market: Grand Forks, North Dakota.
This nugget comes from a recent story in the New York Times about the company that, as the Times piece details, is taking a second swing at marketing a food replacement. Tucked halfway down the page, you’ll find the following: “Soylent sells unusually well in Grand Forks, N.D., the company said, offering no theory as to why that might be.”
Uhh what? Why? How? North Dakota, you say?
So what, other than literal hunger, is fueling Grand Forks’ hunger for Soylent? Conjectures abound: Is there a surplus of oil workers looking for quick, cheap sustenance — much like the Uber and Lyft drivers that Soylent strategically targets? Does the climate — frigid in the winter — prompt residents to reach for whatever protein powder and warmth they can get their hands on? (In that case, seems like people would be better off with — I don’t know — soup?) Or what about the twin presences of an Air Force Base and an airport — one of the busiest in the nation, the Grand Forks Herald reports — because air travel makes people want to disavow traditional sustenance?
I used Soylent’s store locator to pinpoint the brick-and-mortar options available to someone craving Soylent in Grand Forks. There are seven possibilities: three Holiday Stationstores (gas stations), two Walmarts, one Target, and one Pilot Flying J (a truck stop).
Holiday Stationstores, a chain local to the Upper Midwest, sounded promising, but it proved to be a false lead. “I would not say it’s a great seller, but it… sells?” one befuddled Stationstores clerk said over the phone.
“Have you noticed your friends, family, other people in Grand Forks really being into Soylent?” I pressed another. The answer, in that same tone of polite skepticism, was no, and they couldn’t disclose any other details.
Then Bryan Crowley, CEO of Soylent, revealed to me over email that Walmart — specifically, one of the two locations in Grand Forks — was the real high performer in local Soylent sales. “Even without knowing the root cause, we are excited to learn this location is performing so well as it proves Soylent is appealing to a much broader audience outside of our traditional strongholds in large urban markets,” he wrote.
Grand Forks’ demographics may have something to do with Soylent’s apparent popularity in the area. It’s a college town, home to the University of North Dakota, the state’s oldest and largest institute of higher learning. As such, “there is an interesting mix for the population here where this is a highly educated population due to the university,” David Flynn, a professor and the department chair of economics and finance at UND, wrote in an email. With this youthful, educated, and fitness-minded population, Flynn suggested, Soylent might have a natural foothold in Grand Forks.
Moreover, Flynn observes, there has been a “move into alternative food sources like the protein shake or meal replacement type shape in Grand Forks” — which makes sense, if you believe what headlines claim about the youths and their oat milks, meatless burgers, and other alternatives to traditional foods.
Another factor is that soy, a primary ingredient in such products like Soylent (and the increasingly popular, plant-based Impossible Burger), is a major export of North Dakota. “Soy is very popular in [North Dakota] due to the fact that ND farms [are] one of the largest producers of soybeans,” Amir Alakaam, PhD. MS. RDN. LN. MBChB — whew — an assistant professor in UND’s department of nutrition and dietetics, wrote in an email. “People in ND appreciate and value anything made from soybean or [that has] the ‘soy’ ingredient in it.”
The biggest clue in this mystery, however, might have more to do with the town’s proximity to our friendly neighbors to the North. Grand Forks is located just 131 kilometers south of the U.S.-Canada border, about an hour-and-20-minute drive. And Soylent sales, you might recall, happen to be banned in Canada.
“Generally Canadian shoppers enjoy buying options here in terms of both price [and] variety,” wrote Flynn, who cited the discounts available at stores like Walmart as alluring to residents across the northern border. That’s not entirely surprising; enterprising Canadians are known to habitually pick up Trader Joe’s hauls in northern U.S. states to get their regular fixes of Joe-Joe’s and frozen mandarin orange chicken. (Remember that Vancouver store that dealt exclusively in smuggled TJ’s goods?) Similarly, members of the subreddit r/soylent routinely field questions by concerned Canadians debating crossing the border just for their sweet, sweet Soylent.
So the next time you’re in Grand Forks and want to sample some regional favorites, consider skipping the knoephla soup and cheese buttons and instead reaching for a Soylent. It won’t taste like much, but at least you’ll no longer be hungry.