A Food Entrepreneur Gets Her Small Business Into Big Box Stores

Mary Molina, founder of Lola Granola, turned her snacks from a homemade delight to a product seen in thousands of stores throughout the United States. How can others succeed the same way?

Mary Molina of Lola Granola, maker of all-natural granola bars, has found her slice of success. Since launching her business in August of 2012, after casually making the bars for loved ones in her kitchen, it has grown in leaps and bounds, thanks in large part to earning space at major grocery stores like Whole Foods.

Today, Molina’s Bedford Hills, N.Y.-based company has four employees, ships its bars to 2,000 stores nationwide and has sold over 1 million of them since starting up. It wasn’t always easy going for Molina, however. She and her family weathered the loss of a business and financial duress before the profits from Lola Granola put them on steadier ground.

Breaking into large retailers can be a big opportunity for women business owners selling consumer products, as it has been for Molina. However, it can also be perilous, as female entrepreneur Funlayo Alabi learned when she seized the opportunity to get her skin and hair care products on Target’s shelves — but then found herself unable to keep up with demand.

Many entrepreneurs become overwhelmed, which is why many big retailers are working to help make their paths easier. Jenny Grieser, the senior director of corporate affairs for Walmart, runs one such program at the superstore. She says that cultivating a diverse range of suppliers is not only good for women makers; it’s also good business for retailers. “A lot of women bring solutions and great ideas to the assortment” of products on retailer shelves, and “that’s what makes them successful.”

Indeed, when works out — as it did for Molina — everybody wins.

A Humble Recipe for Success

Molina grew up in Orlando, Fla., then moved to Ossining, N.Y., at the age of 16. In 2000, she married her husband, Ernie, and together they had four children: Ellie, who is 14, Enzo, 13, Lola, 10 and Ruby, 9. Life was quiet for the couple, who ran a small cellphone outlet store while raising their family.

But in 2011, everything changed when the Molinas were forced to close their shop and couldn’t immediately find jobs to make up for the loss of income. “When we couldn’t afford toilet paper, that was a dire situation,” she says.

They relied upon government assistance for a time, but when it came to food, the couple had several food allergies to work around. “Lots of items that were available, like the ones at food banks, our family couldn’t use,” she says.

To avoid allergens, save money and help Ernie avoid eating fast food for lunch every day once he found employment, Molina began crafting homemade, all-natural granola bars for him to take to work. She even gave them a catchy title — “Lola Granola,” after their daughter, Lola, who she says is “always happy” — and named the different flavors she concocted after their other children, in hopes that they would bring a smile to her husband’s face amid their myriad difficulties.

He loved them, but what she didn’t anticipate was the enthusiasm from his colleagues for the bars. Everyone who tried them, loved them, Molina says. “At the time, healthy, clean food was on its way in as a trend. They were looking for something like this.” The positive feedback inspired her to research selling the bars. It took about a month to get her home kitchen certified as a space to make them, but once it was she hit the ground running, selling them to small local stores at first.

“I realized after probably the first two weeks of selling to stores that it’d be impossible to keep up with demand if I kept adding” locations, she says. “I began forecasting what our maximum output could be.” It became apparent that, if she wanted to grow her business, she was going to need a bigger space.

It took about two years to secure that larger facility, but Molina was ready for the move when it happened. “Any time you go from your home to a larger facility, cash flow is going to be a problem. So we took on investors, starting with friends and family,” she says.

Those investors proved crucial as they moved into Whole Foods, Fairway and Dean & Deluca, among others.

Leveling Up in Business

While adding bigger stores to her distributor list, Molina relied on the programs these stores had in place to help suppliers navigate the process and avoid the pitfalls.

Female entrepreneurs face a number of difficulties when moving from smaller stores into larger markets, says Walmart’s Grieser. Among the toughest, suppliers often overestimate just how big they can go. “They bite off more than they can chew and over-commit,” she says.

Pricing is another common issue. Often, entrepreneurs don’t accurately factor production, labor, shipping and other costs into the equation. “Lots of people don’t understand how to truly build cost into a product. They find themselves either underpricing and they can’t make anymore, or overpricing and not being competitive.”

Pricing was one of the issues that plagued Alabi, founder and owner of Shea Radiance, though not because she miscalculated. When her products debuted at Target in 2012, she says the stores made errors when putting prices on her products. Other problems, including a lack of growth capital, also hurt her first bid at big-box selling and forced her to pull out. Happily, Alabi has since rebuilt her business and made its foundation stronger than ever — and has begun testing her products in other stores again.

Another problem Grieser often sees is female entrepreneurs struggling to understand the complexities of getting into larger stores. “Especially if they have food products, there are lots of rules and regulations in the United States. We’ve tried to make it easier, but it can still be kind of daunting.”

Molina agrees. “Just when I think I’ve learned it all, there’s always something new that happens. My biggest challenge is that learning curve.” As part of her effort to keep learning, she took part in Goldman Sach’s 10,000 Small Businesses program in 2014.

Stronger Every Day

Today, Lola Granola is available throughout the East Coast, as well as in Texas, California and parts of the Midwest. It has more than doubled its revenue each year. “The goal right now is to get into club stores,” she says, adding that the company is presently in negotiations to make that dream a reality.

For such efforts to pay off, Grieser says planning ahead is vital. “You really need to have some type of a long-range strategy or business plan” extending as much as five or ten years down the road. That plan should include how a business owner intends to acquire capital needed for expansion, accommodate increased demand and staff up along the road.

“Sometimes, women don’t think big enough or long-term enough. They put down on paper a big idea or a big goal for themselves, but how will they go about achieving that? Do they really understand market need or the retailer they’re trying to sell to?”

For Molina, that sort of planning comes naturally. “Five years down the road, I see lots of new flavors and products. I see us not only in club stores, but mass retail stores,” she says, adding that innovations such as new flavors are already on the way in 2017 — not to mention, a fifth child. “I see us growing tremendously.”

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