For years, Chauniqua Major-Louis, founder of Orlando-based Major’s Project Pop, has tried to grow in a slow and measured way. Moonlighting, she incrementally grew her organic kettle corn brand while working a traditional 9-to-5 job in publicity.
After the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement took off last year, Major-Louis, like so many other Black entrepreneurs, was featured in national media outlets like never before. First came a story in VegOut magazine that went viral. Then Major-Louis, known to many as “Major,” captured the attention of Esquire, Forbes and Country Living and other media outlets, catapulting her business—which she launched in 2014 as a side hustle—into a tier of popularity she never imagined with orders flooding in.
“Last year was insane,” says Major-Louis, who originally called her company Eat Project Pop. “Even though I’m a publicist, I never really promoted the company. I knew it would come with it. I knew more exposure can often time lead to more sales, and I knew I wasn’t ready for that. I didn’t have the infrastructure.”
Major-Louis had to adapt and streamline her processes and systems when orders began flooding in.
That lasted for months. In January Major-Louis says “sales were in the drain” and began to wonder if last year was an anomaly.
“I had to grapple with that and get my bearings,” she says. “Because I was used to running at a really fast pace."
By the end of January, it was “crazy again,” Major-Louis says, and she was getting emails from production studios.
Early in February Major-Louis was featured in a Parade magazine roundup of “Black Entrepreneurs, Authors and Businesses to Support During Black History Month.” Once again, the orders started flooding in.
“I started reading the notes from customers, and many told me we love your story, don’t give up, Black Lives Matter,” she says. “It was the sweetest thing. But I’ve been extremely overwhelmed because thousands of dollars of orders came in again in one day. We are sold out right now because the level of orders we’ve experienced between corporate and consumer is beyond me right now.”
Major-Louis, who will turn 32 in March, began her career working in account management and public relations at Rockaway PR, an agency that works with food, travel and hospitality brands. Although Major-Louis has since left that agency and started working at another one, it gave her a chance to work with chefs and restaurants across the country.
“I quickly learned I had a deep love and appreciation for food,” Major-Louis says. “Not just for the way that it tastes but an affinity for the people that actually make it, the growers and the whole system in between.”
After working many late nights, Major-Louis says she got an itch to do something else. Growing up in a military household, she considered joining the Army, and even made plans to get on a bus from Central Florida and go to Tampa to get her physical and be sworn into the military.
“I had a bus set up to take me down, and I just never got on the bus,” she says.
Then Major-Louis applied to Boston University’s MBA program, but says she wasn’t accepted. Major-Louis was still searching for something to do when she came up with her business idea while wandering through a farmers’ market. It took Major-Louis years to turn her dream into a reality. After launching in 2014 and becoming an LLC in 2017, she’s now made a name for her organic kettle corn brand.
Below is her advice for other entrepreneurs.
How did you come up with the idea for Major’s Project Pop?
Chaniqua Major-Louis: There was a place at the farmers’ market in Winter Park that would do these really cool fries. They would drizzle with olive oil and use fresh thyme. It was an upscale fry experience and I thought, how cool would that be to do it with popcorn, instead of cheap ingredients you have in the store. I put the idea in the back of my mind and moved on.
Then what happened?
CML: A couple of years later I received an air popcorn machine for Christmas from my employer. I started to play around with fun recipes and it became something cool to do in the office. I would make popcorn and have colleagues taste it. It was just fun.
Then I won a limbo contest in Miami and won a Williams Sonoma gift card. I decided to buy a Whirley Pop Popcorn Maker to up my popcorn game. I started playing with recipes and having fun.
How did you end up launching the business?
CML: I signed up for a foodpreneur series in Orlando [in 2014]. It’s a two-part series and it walks you through the journey of starting a food business from start to finish in a couple of weeks. I joined with a friend and we were going to launch a juice company. I soon learned how challenging it was to launch a juice company, including sourcing all the ingredients. Halfway through the program she dropped out.
So I was like, what the heck am I going to do? I committed to finishing the program. I ended up locking myself out of the house, so I had to walk from Winter Park, Florida, to East End Market in Orlando. It was a five, six or seven mile walk. During the walk, I told myself "Let’s just do this popcorn thing and see what happens."
In a few short weeks I create a logo and started playing around with recipes. I had to present to the public everything from the idea to the product. Everyone loved the version of kettle corn I made, and I’ve literally been running with the same recipe since then. It has served me well and people love it.
What was life like for your business before the pandemic and death of George Floyd?
CML: In 2019 I started doing events. People were starting to like the brand more. I had a couple of partnerships with different hotels. Then I got an email from VegOut magazine; I filled out some information, and little did I know what I was signing up for.
That story led to, in like minutes, hundreds of orders piling in. I was working from home and looking at my computer. I started seeing the sales. It got to the point it was so overwhelming that I shut off sales for weeks. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know how to scale and I was not ready. I didn’t even have a label maker.
With hundreds of orders coming in, what did you do?
CML: I had to hand write every label. I knew I had to get it together. Thankfully my husband also works in marketing and production, and told me to get some systems in place. Because there was no way I could be writing down labels. It wasn’t going to work.
So I started putting systems in place and changed my mindset, very, very fast.
Everything I thought couldn’t happen, happened last year. I partnered with Amazon, Netflix and I was featured in Forbes. There was so much good happening it was sweet but bitter, because in my heart I knew it was happening because of the death of someone else, because of George Floyd and others who passed in 2020. Finally people started profiling Black businesses and people who have been producing amazing things for a long, long time finally got a light shined on them. It led to this explosion of support.
Truthfully, I never would have taken the steps to get to that point out of fear that I wouldn’t have been able to do it. That’s the beautiful irony in all of this. I was very blessed and pushed into the deep after playing it very safe for a long time.
Wow, that’s powerful. What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs who are just getting started?
CML: Make sure this is something you actually want to do. I’m most proud of the fact that I haven’t quit. Because there is an opportunity every day, like anything you do, whether it’s your marriage, your job, just anything. You have an opportunity to quit. Every day I’ve made a decision to keep going.
You’ve got to get a resolve, to find something deep inside of you, a deeper meaning that just your brand mission, a purpose, a true calling for what you are doing so that you can stick with it, even when you’re not making any money or when it’s amazing and you’re not sleeping. Both sides can be amazing, but very stressful.
What other advice would you give?
CML: I also tell people not to spend so much money on getting started. I’ve done almost everything for my business to date. I had a friend who helped me with my labels. I created the logo. I made the website. I worked with people to get some photos for me and for the most part have been able to create this whole system.
A lot of people feel that in order to have a successful business they need to spend $40,000 on a website and have a bajillion dollars and packaging. You don’t need any of that to get started. Maybe in the future you need to upgrade your systems to take it to another level. But I would advocate for people to start where they can. Don’t invest too much in the beginning.
The whole point is just to get started. As you grow and make money and make connections, I believe there will be people there that can help you along the way. Relieve yourself of that pressure of feeling like everything has to be done and you have to invest so much money to get started.
What are some of the small fixes that many early stage food entrepreneurs forget?
CML: Get a thermal label printer. It will save your life. It’s probably the best $200 you can spend on your business because it’s so practical and will ease your production.
Get some people around you that will encourage you and remind you why you are doing what you’re doing. It’s really easy to feel like you’re in it by yourself, especially late at night when you’re in the kitchen or you’re at an event and it’s just you packing up and setting up. It can feel lonely amid people clamoring for your attention or your product.
I have an amazing support system. My family, my friends, anybody I could get, I’ve asked to put some labels on bags and tape up boxes for me. I used every ounce of anybody who loved me, and they came through.
You mentioned changing and implementing a lot of systems. Can you be more specific? What exactly did you change to improve your business?
CML: I had to get really organized and figure out what’s really going to work for me, for my business. Do I need to create some things on the back end of my website so that the user experience is easier, but it’s also easier for me?
It sounds simple, but it was crucial. And I finally invested in a thermal printer.
I adopted a shipping system called Pirate Ship, which a lot of people have never heard of. It gives you very steep USPS discounts because we’re still not big enough to have one of these big accounts with UPS and FedEx. Half of my sales were going to shipping, so making that change was key.
I had to change my packaging and go slightly smaller so I could control the weight of each bag. Before I’d make a bag of popcorn, because we are still hand packing, and I’d say, oh it can be a little bit more so every bad was overweight. The customer got about 98% of before but I was able to get more bags out to customers and it cut my shipping costs in half. The ounces change from 4 ounces to 3.8.
No one has said anything, but sometimes you have to be willing to make those small changes and adjustments.
What other adjustments have you made that have helped?
CML: In January, I made the move from Wix, which I’ve used for many, many years and has served me well, to Shopify. It was one of the hardest things I think I’ve had to do as a business. Because I had to learn so much, but it has integrations with Pirate Ship that Wix did not. When orders come in, all I have to do is just click ship and integrates with Shopify and all the orders will pop up. It’s simple changes that will save you time.
Before I had to download all my orders to an Excel sheet and then organize them and reupload them to Pirate Ship. Not a major big deal, but I didn’t want to be doing that.
Another cool setting on Shopify is, when I’m out of stock, people can just click to sign up and get notified when we’re back in stock. So that takes off the stress if people are going to come back and buy again. If they sign up, they want to buy again.
Any final words of advice?
CML: Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know. We all want to make it seem like we have it all together, but most of us rarely know what we are doing, if we’re growing.
Find people who are doing similar things in similar industries and build relationships with them, especially with people in different time zones.
For example, one of my friends, who is a visionary, told me to add tipping to my Shopify site. Last week, in two minutes, I got $12 in tips, which is going to pay for my website costs. It’s the little things like that, that you don’t know because you don’t know everything. People can give you little tips and encouragement, texting you at two o’clock in the morning because you’re both cooking.
It might seem like everybody is competing. If you drop that and realize you’re not competing with anybody, if you stay in your own lane and carved out your own niche in whatever you do, there’s never a need to compete. Losing that competition mentality can save your life because you don’t always have to look over your shoulder.
My company is the company it is today in large part because of the people I’ve connected with.