Mary Molina: From the Food Bank to the Shelves of Whole Foods

mary-molina-heart-barsAnyone who signs their emails zip-a-dee-do-dah has got to be a happy person. And perhaps Mary Molina was born an optimist, but in all likelihood a little perspective brought her to her current sunny state. About four years ago, Molina was a food stamp recipient and a regular at her local food bank. But with some support and a lot of hard work and determination, mixed in with a little luck, today she is the proud owner of an all-natural, locally-sourced granola bar company.

Molina and her husband, Ernie, ran a small cellular phone outlet for more than ten years in Somers, New York. It was a family business — she did the books, he ran the shop — and all was good and well until January 2011 when everything came crashing down around them. Forced to close their doors and liquidate all assets, the Molinas and their four kids, all under the age of seven, were in dire straits within two months.

“We were both looking for work but no one was returning our calls. The only jobs I could get would not have covered daycare costs. The outlook was pretty grim so we had no other option but to seek help from social services,” Molina recalls.

lolagranolabars
Lola Granola original packaging

She isn’t going to forget that experience anytime soon. Her claim denied because she couldn’t prove her income, Molina was told she and her husband would have to come back another day. The welfare office was 40 minutes away and she’d barely scraped together the gas money for that trip; there simply was not enough to come back again.

“I was in such a desperate state of panic, trying to keep my head above water and figure out what we were going to do. My husband kept saying, ‘It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay.’ But I just started screaming, ‘It’s not going to be okay. We have nothing.’ And then a small miracle happened … his phone rang.”

It was a part-time job offer selling collector coins and Ernie took it immediately. To save money while he worked, he often bought “value meals” at fast-food restaurants, but soon he started to gain weight. He asked Molina to buy him some energy snacks to get him through the day until dinnertime.

“In my budget range, everything at the store had ingredients I couldn’t understand. My two youngest also have food allergies so I decided to make something from scratch. But I’m not the best baker – my cupcakes end up like lead weights – so I called my aunts for advice.

“I started experimenting – mixing oats, honey, dried fruits, nuts and seeds – and popped it in the oven. I wrapped it in paper and wrote Lola Granola, after our daughter. I thought the name would put a smile on his face.”

When Ernie came home that night, he was excited. He loved The Lola and had given one to a co-worker, who liked it so much he had wanted to buy some. Molina made extra for her husband mary-molina-bars-groupshotto share. But he came back the next evening saying, “I don’t think you understand, they love this … everyone in the office wants these bars.” That got her thinking.

“I wondered, if I did sell it, what would my price point be? Could I make anything off it? Even $10 or $20 extra a week would make a difference. So I contacted the town to get permission.”

mary-molina-2-barsThe town authorities said yes but the County Board of Health said absolutely not. Molina would need a commercial kitchen or have to get her own kitchen approved. So she called the Agriculture Department and got the green light one month later. There were strict processing regulations she had to learn and adhere to. She bought candy bags and a heat sealer from AC Moore and Michaels and wrote Lola Granola by hand on Avery labels. License in hand she was ready to find customers.

“Everywhere I went, they were interested. It seemed too easy. I found out later my husband was one step ahead of me, going to every store in the area and telling them about my bars and our story. People were so kind and receptive.”

She started with 30 bars a week.  Soon, Molina was up to 1000 bars. The entire family pitched in to bake, package and sell. But turnover was still not enough and she took a side-job cleaning offices in the area. She also returned to social services where they were finally approved for support.

And help came from other unexpected places too.

“Our local church opened its pantry to us and of course we went to the Westchester Food Bank. But what really amazed me were the anonymous weekly gift cards that were pushed through the mail slot, the groceries left on the doorstep. Although we never told any friends or the school what was going on, people seemed to find out and the community support was really touching.”

Although demand was increasing, Molina couldn’t produce more in her current space nor could she afford to hire extra hands. If she found a larger kitchen, she would need to make 5000 bars a week to cover the overhead. As an alternative, the then 34-year-old searched for a co-packer, and after eight months, finally found a place in Syracuse that was kosher and gluten-free certified.

“It was amazing to see the bar go through the packaging and realize it was actually a viable business. Everything started to fall into place.”

mary-molina-displayAnd the results, after two years in commercial production, have been tremendous. Before going commercial, Lola Granola sold about 12,000 bars annually. In 2013, the tally was 75,000 bars; projections for 2015 are 1.2 million, with bars sold up and down the East coast and in natural markets out West. Her repertoire has also expanded beyond the original recipe to include five flavors named after each of her kids and her nephew: fancy The Enzo with cashew and almonds, or maybe The Ellie with dates and cashews tickles your fancy?

“We had to name the bars after the kids. In those moments of desperation, the only thing that got us through was seeing our kids happy. We wanted to be reminded of the happiness that carried us through the difficult moments,” Molina explains.

And Ernie got a promotion too. “He’s VP, but I call him my Sherpa!” Molina laughs. “He carries everything tomary-molina-warehouse all the shows, hauls bags of oats when we’re in production. We hired a Marketing Director and are currently looking for someone to oversee production. We’re slowly growing and it’s amazing to watch it all unfold.”

But Molina hasn’t lost sight of her humble beginnings. Remembering who helped her out when times were hard, Lola Granola bars are donated to the Westchester Food Bank as part of the anti-hunger children’s backpack program and she’s reaching out to food banks in areas where they retail.

“Our cupboards were bare and without food pantries we wouldn’t have had food on our table. That’s a reality for so many families in America. Honestly, it’s by the grace of god that I’m able to do this. I didn’t set out to start a business, it fell into my lap. It was a way to get my husband eating better, it was a gift for my children, and now a gift for my community. It’s been a blessing.”

Tips from Mary Molina
  • Set up an appointment with SCORE to help you develop a business plan, it’s free and necessary if you need funding later.  Score chapters are in every state.
  • Community Lending offer a wide array of services beyond just financial lending.
  • Apply to training programs. I did the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small business (10ksb) Tory Burch Program which is specifically targeted at women. It was amazing and definitely helped me grow by introducing me to new tools.
  • Look up trade magazines online (consider to become a trade association member).
  • Keep a log book of all the questions you have and write the answers down as you think of them.
  • It’s okay to ask for help!
  • Most important, if it’s not fun, exciting and rewarding … don’t do it!

 

Watch a video to learn how Mary Molina made the original Lola Granola

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