When Her Mother Was Diagnosed With Breast Cancer, She Started a Popcorn Company to Raise Money for Research
In this ongoing column, The Digest, Entrepreneur.com News Director Stephen J. Bronner speaks with food entrepreneurs and executives to see what it took to get their products into the mouths of customers.
There was only so much waiting around Lauren Mariel could do after she received the devastating news that her mother had been diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer.
"Through the first two weeks of treatments, I'm sitting there and I'm like, 'What am I doing?'" she said of that time in 2013. "I know she appreciates it, but I'm doing nothing for my mom or women who every single day are diagnosed with breast cancer."
Mariel's solution? Start a business. At a young age, Mariel's mother taught her and her sisters how to make popcorn, which quickly became a family favorite. Mariel figured that'd she'd just make some popcorn, slap a label on a bag and raise some money for cancer research and other causes. But this modest endeavor took off, and now Mariel's popcorn brand Live Love Pop can be found in more than 10,000 U.S. and Canada stores, with sales doubling year over year, she said. A portion of sales from each of Live Love Pop's six flavors are donated to different causes.
"I knew the world did not need another popcorn company, but I did know this world needs a better tomorrow, and that's where I thought Live Love Pop could enter into the market," Mariel said. "It's up to us each individually to make a difference. … Seeing my mom improve in health but also see my company thrive because of our vision and our dream has been such an amazing experience for me to watch."
Entrepreneur spoke with Mariel about building the company, her biggest challenge and scaling.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you build your actual retail operation?
I bought a popcorn machine. I hand popped everything, bag by bag, and started hand filling, sealing, packing and shipping it. Our first customers were individuals. I started from door to door around Dallas and selling into smaller retailers and then focused on social media to get the word out. Our second year we picked up tons of smaller accounts, and from then on it started to catch on.
Who was your first big retailer, and how did you land that account?
The key account that established the brand was HomeGoods, T.J. Maxx and Marshall's. They carried our product since the second year of the business after they found us in L.A. Their snacks purchaser gave us a call and said, “Can you produce 10,000 bags for us?” That blew us away. We were like, “10,000?” We were only producing 150 bags at a time. It was a completely new ballgame. It's been a fun experience for us, because it's not the way I thought a food company rolled out. But what I've learned is, there’s no specific way for a company to roll out.
How did you scale production to meet that need?
My cousin and I popped everything up until a certain point and were working 12-hour days. We ended up hiring four women from a temp agency, and it was really important for me to keep it all women at that time. They kept the company up and running until we finally reached that point where we could approach a co-packer. That's when it turned into one of the hardest parts of the business.
Every entrepreneur is crazy about perfection. I have a specific way of popping popcorn, and that's a huge pillar of our brand. It was super important for me to stick to my roots, and we were lucky enough to find a couple of co-packers that were willing to custom make a line for us to cater to our needs and play off of the fact that we are and want to stay small-batch artisan. We've been able to accomplish that even while scaling, because we've just continued to extend our line. We're still popping in the same kettles as I popped my first batch of popcorn.
What do you think entrepreneurs can learn from it your experience with retailers?
My best advice would be that there's always room in the market. Retail is not easy, but if you've got the quality, the product and the passion you'll get there. My favorite stories are the grocery stores that told us "no" two years ago, and now we're one of their best selling products on the shelf. Best feeling in the world. No doesn't ever mean no. It means maybe. I have always taken that to heart. We've proven that since day one, because half the grocery stores that we are in now said no to us originally.
What has been your biggest challenge so far, and how are you able to overcome it?
My biggest challenge, if I were to be completely honest with you, is being a young woman owning my own company. My dad is a partner in the business, and I was a little frustrated in the beginning because I could see that people would prefer speaking to my dad over me and/or would respect my dad a little bit more than me.
I've never been like "girl power," but I am now because I have experienced it when I've gone in for sales meetings where I felt uncomfortable and I can feel the confusion on some of these buyers' faces. A lot of people are shocked that this is my company. That's been a big challenge for me, just mentally, to get over that obstacle of, “I need to stand up for myself and let people know that I am the owner, I am the founder, this is my idea.”
What's the most unusual thing about working in this space?
The sheer fact that you have to pay to literally sit on a shelf to then make money for that grocery store. Your margins are so tiny as a salty snack. Having to pay the $10,000 per SKU, that's a lot of money to be able to compete. That's a large hurdle for entrepreneurs if they can't find the funding to be able to get on a shelf.
What's your goal for the business for the next three years?
I hope to obviously continue to grow, but I hope to also get more and more involved with our causes and charities. The mission behind Live Love Pop is a core pillar behind our brand, and growing that within our company is the most important part to me. We aren't just here for popcorn -- we are here to make a difference in this world.