Everyone loves a good rags-to-riches story—even when it’s not literal. One of my favorite examples is author J.K. Rowling who was collecting welfare benefits while writing the first Harry Potter book.
While Mary Molina’s story isn’t quite that grand – yet – her path is an inspiring one. Molina’s LOLA snacks can now be found in stores across the country, including CVS, Costco, and Target, but her company had a humble beginning in 2011 when Molina and her husband were struggling financially. Her husband had just closed his business, Molina was unemployed, and the family was receiving social service support. Today, her business, located in Westchester County, N.Y., has more than 34 employees and contract workers.
Rieva Lesonsky: What led you to start a business?
Mary Molina: It was a really hard time in our lives. My husband, who had a commission-only sales job, had been eating off of value menus at lunch and was starting to feel unwell. He asked me to make him a snack to help get him through the day. Since my children also have allergies, we eat very clean. I grabbed what I had on hand and made protein bars. I packed the protein bars in his lunch bag, labeling them LOLA Granola, after our daughter. He loved them and so did his co-workers.
Lesonsky: Once you learned people at his work wanted the bars, what did you do?
Molina: I packed extra bars for his co-workers, who then started asking to buy them. I quickly did a cost analysis to make sure I wouldn’t lose money, then called different agencies to find out how to get certified.
Lesonsky: How did you get your bars into a store?
Molina: In May 2011, I walked in Who’s Cooking in Croton Falls and asked if they would sell my protein bars. They said yes!
Lesonsky: At what point did you think this was the start of a “real” business?
Molina: About two weeks after I started selling into small cafes, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with production. I needed to rent a larger space, but that would cut into my very small profit margin. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I met with a SCORE small business advisor and realized if I wanted this to be a real business with maximum growth potential, I would need to go into automated manufacturing.
Lesonsky:How did you go from local stores to Whole Foods?
Molina: At a fundraising event for the Food Bank for Westchester (which had been helping feed my family) we were handing out samples of LOLA bars and were introduced to Whole Foods. They wanted to carry LOLA Bars, but our packaging wasn’t right for grocery stores. So, in 2013, they asked us to come in through an in-store farmer’s market and sell directly to their customers. It was amazing—we sold 200 bars in three hours.
Lesonsky:How did you solve the packaging issue?
Molina: This was my biggest challenge. The packaging had to be food safe, have barriers to protect from moisture, mold, etc. Not knowing the packaged food industry, I turned to Google. It took four days of searching before I found the Prepared Foods Packaging Association website. Now I had people to call and ask a million questions. Once I had packaging, I found a manufacturer to produce my bars.
Lesonsky: How did you get your products carried by Costco?
Molina: First I called several brokers, but they wanted an up-front retainer, so I called Costco HQ to get more info and the buyer answered the phone. I told her my story and she wanted samples.
Lesonsky: How do you differentiate your bars from the competition?
Molina: LOLA Bars are the only VEGAN Protein + Probiotic Bars on the market with 1 Billion CFUs.
Lesonsky: What are your goals?
Molina: My goal is to launch more products and get into more retail outlets. I want to be the next brand in Starbucks.
About Rieva Lesonsky
Rieva Lesonsky is CEO and Co-founder of GrowBiz Media, a custom content and media company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship, and the blog SmallBizDaily.com. A nationally known speaker and authority on entrepreneurship, Rieva has been covering America’s entrepreneurs for more than 30 years. Before co-founding GrowBiz Media, Lesonsky was the long-time Editorial Director of Entrepreneur Magazine. Lesonsky has appeared on hundreds of radio shows and numerous local and national television programs, including the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, The Martha Stewart Show and Oprah.
Lesonsky regularly writes about small business for numerous websites and for corporations targeting entrepreneurs. Many organizations have recognized Lesonsky for her tireless devotion to helping entrepreneurs. She served on the Small Business Administration’s National Advisory Council for six years, was honored by the SBA as a Small Business Media Advocate and a Woman in Business Advocate, and received the prestigious Lou Campanelli award from SCORE. She is a long-time member of the Business Journalists Hall of Fame.
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