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These Sisters Who Just Struck a Major Deal on 'Shark Tank' Reveal How They Caught Producers' Attention During the Application Process Coco and Mafe Cabezas launched Latin American staple brand TOAST-IT because they couldn't find their Venezuelan favorites in the U.S.

By Amanda Breen Edited by Jessica Thomas

Key Takeaways

  • The Cabezas sisters recognized a gap in the market for authentic, healthful and convenient Hispanic foods.
  • They bootstrapped until last year, when they received their first round of funding — and just appeared on 'Shark Tank.'
  • TOAST-IT landed a deal with KIND founder Daniel Lubetzky, who's uniquely positioned to help build their brand.

Eight years ago, political and social unrest in Venezuela motivated sisters Coco and Mafe Cabezas to move from the country's capital of Caracas to Miami, Florida. As the sisters settled into their new city, they soon realized something was missing — their favorite foods from home. They were finishing school and starting corporate careers, and their "hectic" lifestyles didn't afford them much time to prepare the dishes they loved the most. Their search for store-bought alternatives wasn't successful either; instead, it revealed "a very interesting hole in the market" for authentic, healthful and convenient Hispanic foods.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Shark Tank. Mafe Cabezas, left; Coco Cabezas, right.

The Cabezas sisters launched Latin American staples brand TOAST-IT to change that. They started with arepas: Made of ground maize dough and stuffed with a filling, arepas are a South American staple, particularly in Columbia and Venezuela, and are eaten throughout the day, typically as a snack or side dish. They're also naturally gluten-free and vegan and require just three ingredients — all aspects that convinced the sisters they had a highly marketable product on their hands. "We thought, This product has the potential [to not only be] very convenient and an amazing solution for people that already eat [arepas], but also to attract customers from other nationalities, too," Coco Cabezas recalls.

Although both sisters had business backgrounds thanks to their time in the corporate world, they were completely new to entrepreneurship and quickly discovered that the food business is "a beast." There was "something new to learn every day," and without a mentor to help them navigate the twists and turns, they were on their own: batching arepas in their kitchen, boxing them up and shipping them to customers who placed orders on their website. They also pitched their product to local grocery stores, ultimately landing in Publix within just a year and a half — which came with 10X growth.

The co-founders knew they had "something very special" when their customers kept coming back for more. They've left their corporate jobs to work on TOAST-IT full-time, expanding their product line to include cassava (yuca) and chia flaxseed arepas variations and plantain buñuelos. The Cabezas bootstrapped the business until last year when they received their first round of funding through a16z's Talent x Opportunity Initiative (TxO), and they recently struck a Shark Tank deal with Daniel Lubetzky, the Mexican-American billionaire founder of snack company KIND.

Related: 3 Strategies for Creating Strong Hispanic Heritage Month Campaigns

It's Hispanic Heritage Month, and Entrepreneur sat down with Coco Cabezas to hear more about what helped the brand born of love for her home country's cuisine stand out to Shark Tank producers during the early stages of the application process — and made it possible for her and her sister to have "an incredible experience" on their episode, which aired on October 6.

"What really captures the attention of the producer [is] a story."

The journey began about six months before the co-founders appeared in front of the Sharks — and it all started with an application. Eligible applicants must be U.S. citizens or legal residents and cannot be a convicted felon, have criminal charges pending, run for public office within one year of their segment, or be immediately affiliated with any company with a connection to the show, per Shark Tank's initial application packet. Cabezas encourages any entrepreneur interested in pitching on the show to take the leap and submit an application — because even if it seems like a long shot, it can and does pay off.

One thing any Shark Tank hopeful should be particularly focused on from the start, according to Cabezas? Your story. She believes the way she and her sister told theirs helped them make a strong impression on producers. "What really captures the attention of the producer [is] a story," Cabezas explains, "because that's the most engaging part of it — [it's that part of] thinking about what makes your product very unique and different from everything that's out there."

Image Credit: Courtesy of Shark Tank.

Related: 5 Important Lessons Shark Tank Teaches Us About Negotiation

The sisters were "super excited" when they learned that Lubetzky would be on their episode, calling him "a legend in the industry" with extensive experience in CPG, including his recently co-founded SOMOS, a Mexican food company based on the food he and former KIND executives Miguel Leal and Rodrigo Zuloaga ate growing up. The Cabezas were also glad Lubetzky was familiar with the challenges of building in refrigerated categories, as TOAST-IT products are stored frozen.

In the lead-up to their time with the Sharks, the sisters prepared extensively, nailing down every detail from wardrobe to pitch, making sure that no question would catch them off guard and that every number was second nature, Cabezas says. "Obviously, you know your company very well," she adds, "but when you're nervous in front of cameras, you have to think in a split second, [and] we actually practiced that." In fact, the sisters practiced so much the week before their episode that Cabezas lost her voice for a couple of days — a sure sign it was time for a break, and that they were ready.

"It's one of those experiences where you come out stronger. I'm so grateful."

When the big moment came, all of their efforts paid off. Lubetzky was just as excited about a partnership with them as they were about one with him. "Mafe and Coco have built the magical bond of sisterhood into a formidable business partnership," Lubetzky said in a statement. "As a confused Mexican Jewish American and co-founder of SOMOS Mexican foods, I love discovering companies like TOAST-IT that have mastered the formula for bringing beloved Hispanic staples to mainstream consumers in a format that is delicious and convenient."

Image Credit: Courtesy of Shark Tank. The sisters with Daniel Lubetzky.

The guest shark offered the Cabezas sisters $150,000 for 20% equity in the final deal terms.

Related: What You Can Learn from 'Shark Tank' Contestants' Successes (and Failures)

"We loved every second of [being on the show]," Cabezas says. "It's a very nerve-wracking and intimidating experience, but it's one of those experiences where you come out stronger. I'm so grateful that I was able to be part of it. We felt like superstars for a day, witnessing all the sets and the production. It honestly made me even a bigger fan, just seeing how many people work on it and put their love and effort into making it happen."

The sisters say Lubetzky's input will be "invaluable" as they continue TOAST-IT's mission to share their Venezuelan culture and heritage with the world through delicious, convenient Hispanic products that don't sacrifice health. "[We're] just being very intentional about creating very, very yummy products [to help] people know more about Latin cuisine," Cabezas says.

Amanda Breen

Entrepreneur Staff

Senior Features Writer

Amanda Breen is a senior features writer at Entrepreneur.com. She is a graduate of Barnard College and received an MFA in writing at Columbia University, where she was a news fellow for the School of the Arts.

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