If your mantra is eat ‘healthy or die trying’—and it’s looking like it’s your funeral—husband and wife Ernie and Mary Molina have developed food for thought that is easier to swallow. After an extended period of unemployment and subsisting on food stamps, Ernie, originally from Chile, found employment and Mary began making soy and gluten-free granola bars for him to save money on lunch and snacks and as a fast food alternative. Produced with healthy, natural ingredients like seed proteins and honey, they dreamed of supplying the delicious granola bars to local markets. But couldn’t get a loan. Community Capital NY gave them business coaching…and a loan. Now they hire and help employ more than 45 at two distribution centers in Mount Kisco, kept a Syracuse factory open, buy from local farmers, and provide the community with fresher, healthier guilt-free protein bars in 5 varieties (and 5 flavors in the works–hello chocolate and cookies and cream). Gross revenues now reach $450,000 and the family provides granola bars to the school backpack lunch program that helped sustain them, and local food pantries. And you can grab any of their Lola Granola bars, named for one of their four children, in supermarkets like Whole Foods, Dean & DeLuca, Fairway and Mrs. Green’s to stay on track with your fitness goals and satisfy allergy-free needs with something that doesn’t taste artificial. They have a year-long shelf life, but are likelier to be devoured in the course of a day.
How did you get into the granola bar business?
Ernie: After a long period of unemployment, I starting working but was going out the door with $2 in my pocket, which meant I could buy two things from the dollar menu. I blew up, and felt ill.
Mary: I needed an alternative to the empty calories Ernie was eating. We hike a lot, and because my kids can’t eat baked snacks because they have soy allergies, I’ve always had flax seed meal (which helps with brain development) and alternatives in my kitchen like nuts, dried fruit, whole grains, honey and shredded coconut. I used what I had in my cupboards to make a granola bar, baked it, and wrapped it, originally as a joke to help make light of our financial situation, and called it Lola Granola after one of our daughters. Ernie took a bite and said ‘OMG, I can sell this.’ By the end of the week, I was making them for the men he worked with. Each bar is named after one of our children, Ruby, 5, Ellie 10, and Enzo, 9, and Lola, 6, and a nephew, Nathan.
How did you get your business off the ground?
Mary: I called the health department to find out how I could legally make them from home. They said No, No, No. Impossible. I refused to be defeated and kept contacting agencies. Since my bars are dairy free I was approved by the Department of Agriculture to bake out of my home, and when I moved to a larger facility, I got my kosher and gluten free certification, and I’m now working on my non GMO certification. A book cover designer friend created the packaging, branding and logo pro bono, though initially he created two versions. One was very natural packaging, and the other was vivacious. Overwhelmingly the focus groups chose the colorful Lola Granola. We’d emailed Kroger’s (supermarket chain) and they loved it. We were surprised. We’re now up for a ‘product review’ for Kroger’s and Stop and Shop.
How did your business evolve?
Mary: We wanted to keep production local, but had to move it out of my kitchen. We now manufacture out of a factory in Syracuse, which reopened after being closed for four years, employing 25 people, and run two distribution centers, one in Syracuse and one in Mt Kisco. Our orders are doubling every month, and we’re now producing 2000 granola bars a week. Our bars are made with 3 to 4 grams of protein, a lot more natural than the ‘protein’ bars on the market. My bars break down nutrients better. Honey is not a super sugar high, either and has a very low glycemic index. A lot of bars on the market have high fructose corn syrup and your liver has trouble processing that, especially athletes. My protein comes from nuts and seeds as opposed to whey powder. I use whole food ingredients.
Ernie: Yesterday alone we got an $11,000 order. Community Capital NY bridged the gap in our cash flow. We have net 15 to net 30 days for our customers to pay, but we have to pay for our raw goods a month before we produce. Each and every ingredient goes through quality control checks, ensuring it’s kosher, gluten, soy and dairy free. Thanks to Community Capital NY, we are able to do a larger run, and buy the trailer load of 44,000 pounds of oats we need, and supply larger distributors, which handle larger grocery and supermarket chains. We’re in all Dean & Deluca’s, Decicco’s, Adams Fair Acre Farms and have picked up the Smoothie King franchises, and in the next few weeks will be in all Whole Foods, Fairway and Mrs. Greens.
What did you wish you knew in hindsight?
Ernie: Originally we didn’t want to be thought of as just a dietary bar, so we put ‘no wheat, no soy, no GMOs’ on the packaging but didn’t put gluten free. I wish we had. That’s the major reason people buy the bars. There is a huge swing to healthy eating, and even people who are not allergic are avoiding gluten. If we had had the capital to do the analytics, it would have saved us money in packaging. We didn’t have R&D (research and development). We had to go on a gut feeling.
What’s the best advice you got along the way?
Mary: To build a business that holds with our beliefs. I’d worked in Marriott’s chef program, and at the Hunts Point market, so I knew produce sales was an $8 million a year industry. We knew we wanted a personal relationship with the companies we work with. So I buy cranberries from Massachusetts. I know my honey suppliers. Our oats are from the Finger Lakes. I’m not sourcing out of Asia. Our dates are from Arizona. People like knowing where their food is coming from. We know the source of each ingredient. We can trace it. We can trust it. And, since we know what it means to live on food stamps and to feed a family on very little, we donate a percentage of our proceeds, and granola bars, to food banks and Westchester’s Back-Pack Program.
When did you know you’d arrived?
Mary: When I made the first tray of 12 bars I never imagined we’d be making 300 bars every five hours. I just ran 75,000 bars and within the month will hit 100,000.
Ernie: The next step is 50 pallets of each flavor for each national chain we supply.
Mary: We’re going to round out the line to 10 flavors, adding 5 more (chocolate and cookies and cream will be added to Lola’s Almond and Cranberries, Ruby’s Just Cranberries, Ellie’s Date and Cashew, Enzo’s NYC Nuts and Nathan’s Blueberry Almond). Our display boxes are being redesigned to stack, and are now 100% recycled material.
Ernie: Instead of 10 boxes of five flavors, if we wholesale 20 boxes of 10 flavors, sales double. We’re also hoping to increase our web traffic to attract 30% of our sales, doing QVC, a national television program, to build web traffic.
Mary: We also want to be in 200 Food Banks across the county.