"One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about a mother who had to find a way to make ends meet after her business went under. The product she came up with is now sold in supermarkets throughout the U.S., and is projecting nearly half a million dollars in revenue! " -- Marlo, MarloThomas.com
By Lori Weiss
It was a moment Mary Molina never imagined she’d ever see. Once the owner of a thriving small business in New York’s Westchester County, she was now waiting in the lobby of the Department of Social Services. Children by her side, she was hoping someone would help her feed her family -- if only they’d listen to her story.
“I got there just after they opened,” Mary recalled, “at nine in the morning. I filled out some paperwork and then I just waited. I read books to my two little girls. I made phone calls about jobs. But by the time 2:00 came around, I told them I needed to leave and pick up my other kids. That’s when they told me I’d have to come back the next day.”
“I had no money for the gas to get back there. So I took some silver jewelry and went to the pawn shop and got just enough cash to make the trip. And then, the next day, the same thing happened. When I told them I’d have to leave by 2, they told me I’d have to come back again.”
Mary walked out of the office in tears and called her church to ask if she could pick up some food from their pantry, to feed her kids that night. Her husband, Ernie, had been waiting outside and at that very moment, his phone rang. Minutes later, he turned to her and said, “It’s going to be okay.”
“I said, ‘No, it’s not going to be. I don’t think you understand what just happened!’ That’s when he told me the call was a job offer. It paid minimum wage, but he could earn commissions. I just fell to my knees because I knew it would give us time to figure things out.”
The couple had fought for years to keep their wireless phone stores afloat. They lost their home in the process. And Mary recalled a moment, while she was in labor with her third child, Lola, that she was battling with late paying distributors, as nurses were telling her to breath.
“I should have been focused on giving birth,” Mary said sadly, “but instead I was worrying about how we were going to pay our employees. I just knew if we stayed in that business, this would continue to be the way we lived our lives.”
So in 2011, the couple, who by that point had four children, finally closed their stores and decided to start over. Ernie took that minimum wage job, and in an effort to save money, he’d ask his colleagues to pick something up for him on their way back from lunch -- anything they could find on the dollar menu.
“Ernie was eating double cheeseburgers for lunch,” Mary said. “He’d come home and say he didn’t feel well, and he was gaining weight. So he asked me to pick up some sort of bar that he could eat at his desk. But when I went to the grocery store, I couldn’t find anything that I considered healthy. They were all filled with high fructose corn syrup and artificial ingredients.”
“I thought, There must be something I could make for him. I knew he liked oats and I had them in my cupboard at home. I had honey and flaxseed and coconut. It was three in the morning by the time I had a chance to try anything. So there I was making granola bars and I thought, I’m going to call this Lola Granola -- after our daughter. Ernie will see it and it will cheer him up. So I wrote Lola Granola on a slip of paper and wrapped it around the bar. And then at 5:30 AM, I climbed into bed.”
Article Continues Below Slideshow
For Mary Molina, a busy mother of four, caring for her family was always the number one priority. When her family business went under, Mary suddenly found herself struggling to feed her children, and she decided to take matters into her own hands.
Mary came up with a delicious home recipe for a healthy granola bar, and her creation would spark a business that would not only feed her family, but many others throughout her community. Mary's bar brand -- Lola Granola -- put her family on their way to making nearly half a million dollars.
Shortly after Mary met and married her husband Ernie, the couple went into business together, opening up a small wireless phone company based in Westchester County, New York.
Though the business started out successful, the couple had to fight for years to keep their stores afloat during poor economic conditions.
In the midst of their struggle to stay in business, Mary and Ernie had started their own family. The family was forced to take shortcuts wherever possible if it meant saving money. Ernie would often rely on cheap, unhealthy options for lunch, and as his family continued to expand, so did his waistline. Here's a shot of Ernie with daughter Ellie and newborn son Ernie in March 2004.
In the fight to keep their company afloat, Mary and Ernie lost their home. In the midst of giving birth to her third child Lola (seen her in the tub with her siblings), the couple was battling with late paying distributors.
In 2007, Mary gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter named Ruby. In a few short years after Ruby's birth, the family was forced to finally close their wireless phone business. Ernie picked up a job which paid minimum wage, and Mary resorted to food stamps and charitable donations from her community to feed her children.
Tired of fast food, Ernie asked his wife to pick up some sort of healthy bar that he could eat at his desk for lunch instead, but Mary came up empty-handed. Taking matters into her own hands, Mary played around with some simple ingredients she had at home and whipped up her own homemade bar. She decided to call her recipe Lola Granola, after their daughter.
The bar was a huge hit. After Ernie called his wife the next day raving about how delicious the bar was, his co-workers quickly wanted to know where they could buy some for themselves. Mary decided to get licensed to make and sell her delicious new home recipe to the community.
“My Mom, my friends and neighbors were all coming over, putting on gloves, and helping me pack bars and put on labels," recalled Mary. "I was suddenly making so many you could smell them from the street!” Here, Ernie's mother, Veronica, and sister, Mary Alexandra, help Mary prepare samples.
After she received her food handling license, Mary would make her Lola Granola bars at home during the week and demo the product in local stores during the weekend. Here, Mary and the kids offer samples of the bar at a local specialty store.
Despite Lola Granola's early success, Mary always made it a priority to give back to her community, especially since her own family had struggled so much. The family would donate hundreds of bars a month to their local Food Bank of Westchester. To show their gratitude, the food bank invited Mary's family to sample their bars at local events. Here, Ruby prepares granola samples at a local spring show.
At one particular event, the local Whole Foods store was also in attendance. They liked Mary’s bars so much that they told her they were interested in selling them in-store. It was a moment that would drastically change Mary and her family's life forever.
After making a deal with Whole Foods, Mary decided it was time to move her operation out of her kitchen and into a bigger factory based in Syracuse. “When I saw that first big sheet of granola come off the line,” Mary recalled, “I began to tear up. That’s when I knew we had a new lease on life.”
In 2012, Mary and her family were featured on celebrity chef Sunny Anderson's television show on The Food Network. In the episode which focused on American-made food products, Sunny helped bag and label Lola Granola Bars alongside Mary's family in their home.
By 2013, Lola Granola Bars had expanded into four new flavors -- each named after one of her children -- and hit the shelves of retailers and specialty stores including Whole Foods, Fairway and Shoprite.
In 2013, Mary debuted her Lola Granola line on the QVC shopping network. Here, Mary preps for her segment on-set.
Here, Mary pulls out a batch of fresh-baked bars in her home kitchen while her daughter -- and original inspiration -- Lola sits nearby. Mary still loves to experiment with new flavors at home.
Mary named each one of her granola bar recipes after her children. Here, her son Enzo proudly holds up the new banner advertising the Enzo bar, a variety made with cashews and almonds.
Continuing the sweet tradition of naming each new bar recipe after one of her children or loved ones, Mary decided to name her most recent variety -- a recipe made with blueberries and almonds -- after her adorable nephew, Nathan. Here, Nathan puts an empty Lola Granola box to good use!
In 2013, the Molina family donated 1000 bars to the American Lung Association Penn Plaza Climb. They were given the honor of being the official bar of the event.
In the midst of busy school and soccer schedules, Mary and Ernie have made family fun time a priority. Here, the happy family plays on the swing set in their back yard.
After losing their first family business and home and struggling to stay afloat, Mary and her family have found great success. No longer on food stamps, this year, the Molina family is projecting revenue of $450,000. Here, the family hikes to the top of Anthony’s Nose in Putnam County during a weekend trip together. "Sometimes all you need is a little time to get back on your feet," said Mary.
What Mary never expected, was that her middle of the night creation, would be the beginning of a business that would not only feed her family, but others throughout their community -- and put them on their way to making nearly half a million dollars.
“At 10:30, Ernie called and said, ‘This is the best bar I’ve ever had. You’ve got to make more!’ I told him I had an entire tray waiting for him. And that’s when he said, ‘No, you don’t understand. I’ve been passing these around at work, they want to buy them!”
Mary had never worked in the food business, but she knew there had to be rules about selling food that was prepared at home. So she told Ernie not to sell a thing -- that she’d just make an extra tray. But then she began making phone calls to find out what it might take, if she wanted to actually sell Lola Granola bars.
What she learned, was that in Westchester County, the Department of Agriculture would allow her to prepare the bars at home, once they inspected her kitchen and granted a license. She had to abide by their restrictions, but as long as she sold through retail stores and labeled the bars with a full ingredient list, she could begin a home based food business.
“My husband had already reached out to a store in town,” Mary explained. “So as soon as I got my license, I picked up a tray of bars, and took them there. They bought forty bars on the spot. I thought if they’ll buy them, there must be other stores that would too. So I took my kids on the train and starting stopping at other specialty stores on the route. Two weeks into it, we were picking up more and more stores. And people were calling me to re-order! I hadn’t even thought about that!”
“My mom, my friends and my neighbors were all coming over, putting on gloves, and helping me pack bars and put on labels. I was making so many you could smell them from the street!”
But even with that good news, there were still difficult times on the horizon. Their situation was more dire than even Mary’s husband realized.
“Ernie came across a television special, called Feed America. When he heard that one in four kids in the country go hungry, he came into the room sobbing, saying, ‘One in four -- that could be one of our children.’ I said, ‘Ernie, those are our children.’ He didn’t realize that our neighbors, after hearing we’d closed the stores, had been dropping off groceries and gift cards.”
Despite Mary’s early success, the couple had no choice but to turn to food stamps. But that didn’t keep either of them from moving forward on what had become an important mission. Mary continued selling her bars and Ernie decided to go to the community food bank -- to ask if the couple could donate some.
Lola Granola Bars became part of a backpack program for kids. And the food bank invited them to sample their product at local events. That’s where, some might say, karma comes in. The local Whole Foods store was also at that event and they liked Mary’s bar so much, they told the couple they wanted to sell them.
It was at that point, that the accidental entrepreneur realized, that in order to grow, she was going to have to get out of her kitchen. She turned to a facility in Syracuse, New York, that as it turned out, needed the work as well. Now they’re helping Mary turn out 25,000 bars every six weeks.
“When I saw that first big sheet of granola come off the line,” Mary remembered, “I began to tear up. That’s when I knew we had a new lease on life.”
Today, Lola Granola Bars are being sold in 13 Whole Foods stores throughout the Northeast. They’re in Dean and Deluca nationwide, Fairway, select ShopRite Supermarkets and specialty stores throughout the country. Four flavors, named for each of their children -- Ellie, Enzo, Lola and Ruby -- plus a fifth, named for their nephew Nathan, have been picked up by a distributor, and this year, the Molina family is projecting revenue of $450,000. They are no longer on food stamps.
“When our community found out we’d lost our stores, even people who had never met us reached out to help. If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know where we’d be. I just want people to know, they shouldn’t let pride stand in their way of asking for help. There will be someone who has compassion. Sometimes all you need is a little time to get back on your feet.”
“Now when our neighbors see people picking up our bars,” Mary said with a tear in her eye, “I hear them telling our story. They’re so proud that we’re from their town. And we’re so proud to live here.”
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