LunaPops earned the "Best New Food" award at their Natural Products Expo East debut in 2011. The Mexican-inspired pops got their name from the incredible moons over the family's retail locations at Topsail Island and Wilmington, N.C., but the flavors such as Mango Chile and Sea Salt Caramel are all the brainchild of Dina Mills, whose first business was selling ice cream.
The family of six, plus rescue dog Luna, together run the LunaPops popsicle business, whether it's suggesting new flavors or the all-too-important task of tasting. Best brain-freeze advice? "Press your tongue as hard as you can on the roof of your mouth!" said Dina's husband Jonathan, who eats up to two pops a day depending on his sales meetings, because who wants to taste test alone?
In just three years, the Mills went from seasonal paleta shop to shipping this March to natural retailers on the East Coast. As serial entrepreneurs, here's their advice for other natural products businesses.
Dina: Back in 2007 I tried my first paleta here locally [in North Carolina]. I found it to be bursting with flavor. When I looked into it a bit more, it wasn't all natural. I started experimenting in my kitchen and we'd have tasting parties to see what flavors people liked the most. We traveled around the U.S. and I even went to Mexico and worked with a family who had been making pops since the 1960s to see how they did it. We opened our two retail stores in January and April 2008. At first we sold single pops, but then country clubs and specialty stores approached us so we developed flavors for food service in 2010. We are currently in about 40 such locations. And then Whole Foods Mid-Atlantic contacted us!
newhope360: So you were approached by natural retailers, rather than launching right into the natural space. What has helped you during this transition?
Jonathan: We're serial entrepreneurs. We met in Warsaw, Poland, and we've traveled all around the world, but this is our first natural products business. We saw a niche to create gourmet, artisan pops with high-quality ingredients. This year, our plan is to sell to all natural retailers up and down the East Coast from Maine to Florida.
Before we can ramp up and spread to the West we need to be able to provide the supply, but we eventually are interested in attending Natural Products Expo West. We couldn't have made the connections or relationships that we did in the natural products industry if we didn't exhibit at Natural Products Expo East. The connections and relationships that I've developed, emailing back and forth, have been so supportive in connecting us with new distributors and opportunities. We couldn't have done this if we hadn't been at Expo East.
newhope360: How many employees do you have?
Dina: We have about 15 employees in season. All our pops are handmade in our new production facility at Piedmont Food & Agricultural Process Center. And we have the retail shop on Topsail Island. The Wilmington store was part of our original kitchen and thus when our kitchen moved we closed it but still sell through retail partners in the area.
Jonathan: We're a family business and have triplets who are 10 and a 9-year-old. Our kids get involved in the business and love trying the flavors and coming up with new ideas for flavors. They love our business. Who wouldn't, as a kid, love a popsicle business?
newhope360: Do you think selling in the frozen food section stifles your flavor creativity?
Jonathan: At our retail shops we have had more than 100 flavors. It's difficult because we have to narrow it down to eight flavors for our packs in stores. It's a fine balance between offering great flavor profiles and finding what will actually sell. The retail locations are great for researching that.
newhope360: Describe your typical workday.
Dina: We just moved into our new production facility at Piedmont where I have an office. I'm there during the day, from nine to five Monday to Friday, and am right now hiring staff and hiring our new chef. In the off season I'm in the kitchen, where I really love to be, creating new flavors.
Jonathan: And I'm the sales part of the business. I'm on the phone all day making calls. In the evening when our kids are doing their homework, we're still working on the business. It's a 24/7 job and a family affair, but it's the best job. We're making popsicles!
newhope360: Why is sourcing local, hormone-free milk and using natural ingredients important to you?
Dina: We've always been mindful of health, especially with our kids. I've traveled around the world and everywhere I went I took cooking classes and experienced new flavors. In Italy, where we travel many summers, the foods are less processed. The focus is on fresh, local ingredients that let the real flavor of foods really shine. We also find that we just feel better.
Jonathan: And people want a high quality product, and the best high-quality product starts with the best [natural and local] ingredients.
newhope360: How do you come up with innovative new flavors like rhubarb lime or hibiscus lemon or sea salt caramel?
Dina: We have a variety of flavors that appeal to all kinds of tastes. We had milk chocolate chai for a while, and now chai is a popular ingredient in coffee houses. Our cookies and cream is a favorite with kids— it has a whole cookie in the middle.
Jonathan: We have tasting parties and do our taste tests in little ice cube trays. Some of the kids [who come] have never seen an ice cube tray, because everyone has ice makers now. They think it's the coolest thing.
newhope360: What advice would you give someone just starting up their own natural products business?
Dina: Have a plan, but be prepared for things to not go as planned. We started as a retail store but now we're selling in natural stores. You have to be flexible and build change into your plan because things don't always go as expected.
Jonathan: Mine would be 1. Really enjoy your product, and 2. Make the best quality product that you can.