HELENA, Mont. – An innovative small business in Bozeman is expanding its market by distributing inside Yellowstone National Park, where more than 5.5 million visitors could be potential customers.
Jelt produces belts designed for active lifestyles. The belts are flexible and grip to pants with or without belt loops. Manufactured from recycled water bottles, they contain no metal and may be worn through airport security checkpoints.
Jennifer Perry invented the Jelt Belt three years ago, initially outsourcing the manufacturing to China before returning it to Montana.
“That didn’t really feel authentic to me because my entire company is a social enterprise,” she said, adding that Jelt donates $1 for every belt sold to the Warriors and Quiet Waters Foundation for post-9/11 combat veterans. “I started my business to give back to my community.”
Today, 70 percent of the manufacturing is done in-state through the Correctional Enterprise Program at the Montana Women’s Prison, in which incarcerated women interview for jobs and earn wages to pay restitution and other eligible expenses.
The change in manufacturing qualified Jelt to become a member of the Made in Montana program, which Perry said “opened up some major doors” she didn’t realize would become available.
One of those doors was the opportunity to participate in a live-pitch business competition hosted by Delaware North, which operates the retail stores inside Yellowstone National Park. The company was looking to add authentic Made in Montana products to its gift shops across the park.
Jelt was selected as a winner, and before long, it was preparing a large order of belts to be sold inside the Canyon Lodge Gift Store with other recreational gear just in time for the busy summer season.
According to data from the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, visitors from out of state spent $226 million on Made in Montana products in 2016.
Perry said distributing through a national park is a unique opportunity to diversify her market and build recognition for the Jelt brand. She hopes that if the belts perform well at one gift shop, she may be able to expand into others.
“This is a great way for me to expose my product to international travelers,” she said. “If I could expand into more stores in the park, that would completely send me to the next level. It would be a huge feather in my cap, and I would be able to expand my business exponentially and hire more people and donate more back.”