“When we show up with our products, we still find some people are intrigued, for lack of other adjectives.” Mellini Monique Bramlett says about the experience of selling Herby PoP popcorn in their hometown of Chicago. “They say ‘You make this? You market this? You package it?’ We know they’re really wondering: how did a Black family create this?”
Stories like this are the reason why we created the Accelerator for Local Goods, which Mellini Monique recently graduated from. It’s an educational program designed to uplift local, consumer packaged goods businesses owned by entrepreneurs who are women, transgender, immigrants, or people of color (I wrote about another business that graduated from the program, Bo-yi, for my last story.)
Herby PoP is run by Mellini Monique and her husband, Brodie. Together, they combine hand-crafted organic, gourmet popcorn with global flavors like Malagasy Vanilla, Jollof PoP, and Masala Munch, inspired by cuisines all over the world. Behind Herby PoP’s artisanal flavors is a B-corp with an inspiring mission to open customers’ taste buds to natural herbs, various cultures, and flavors that don’t compromise health.
Evolving as an entrepreneur
For Mellini Monique, her journey to entrepreneurship began at a very young age. “I really did start with a lemonade stand!” she says. “Around the age of 10, my grandmother hosted all the grandchildren for one summer, with the requirement that we each start a business. So I got up at 5 am every day, baked, and then sold cookies on the far South Side [of Chicago], where I grew up.”
However, family life soon gave this young entrepreneur a different understanding of the value of money. “My mother and father were middle class at first, but then we hit some really rough times, and so I had to take the agency that I was taught as a young girl and enact it again in high school, selling candy bars from a second backpack,” she says. “I would sell in between classes, before school, and after, if I still had inventory.”
I learned how to stand up for myself, how to pitch the product, the ‘why’, and how to handle different temperaments and customers.
While Mellini Monique had an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age, her journey to becoming one took a few detours. She was the first in her family to graduate college; soon after, Mellini Monique joined the Abell Foundation and became a chaplain at an all-boys boarding school in Nanyuki, Kenya. When she returned to the US, she worked as a drama therapist in local hospitals. However, she quickly became disillusioned with the medical system, which led her to become a medical missionary.
“I was doing a lot of medical missionary work, helping people change their lifestyles from what we call SAD (Standard American Diet),” she says. “I also knew there was something in salt and sugar giving us those dopamine hits we want to feel good: hello junk food! At the time, we were making our herbed popcorn at home for our children, free of processed ingredients. One day we thought, what if we share this with our clients?”
Persevering through hard times
Even though Mellini Monique and Brodie made and gifted their herbed popcorn, clients insisted on paying. “If people wanted to, we just let them pay what they could,” she says. “But we identified this as a source of revenue to do more good and of course, help us feed our six growing children.
Shortly after they turned Herby PoP into a business, the pandemic changed everything. For Mellini Monique, it was a double blow. “Because we have some education to do to show what herbed popcorn tastes like, we’ve always liked to sell at pop-ups,” she says. “But the pandemic shut those down. On top of that, we had to leave a shared popcorn manufacturing space.”
For many, this could have been the last stop before shutting down altogether. But Mellini Monique and Brodie got creative instead. “We started hosting live conversations on Facebook and Instagram around flavor, global culture, and wellness,” she remembers. “Customers tuned in and said ‘Great, just tell me when I can order again’. Slowly we were able to restart the pop-ups, and get into a kitchen where we could pop overnight.”
Bridging knowledge gaps with education
Businesses accepted into the Accelerator for Local Goods undergo an immersive, six-week program, where participants learn about wholesaling, financial management, and marketing, among other topics. Designed for small businesses looking for educational and economic access to grow their business, the program awards a $5,000 grant to each business. Entrepreneurs also have access to marketing and sales support from DoorDash, along with the opportunity to reach a broader customer base with product placement in DashMart – a DoorDash-owned and operated grocery and convenience store.
While Mellini Monique wants DoorDash to help HerbyPop become a national brand, the company is enjoying marketing to and working with local community partners to educate consumers. “We don’t have Ethiopian flavors, but masala, like the kind we use with our Masala Munch, has a very similar flavor profile to Ethiopian cuisine,” she says. “We invited Tigist Reda, the owner of Demera Ethiopian Restaurant, to come on the show and talk about her culture. That helped us build a strong relationship with her, bridging that cultural gap.”
For a small business like ours to be connected with such a big company like DoorDash, it gives us street cred. People will stop calling us ‘that little business’ when they see us alongside major national brands on the platform.
It’s equally important for Mellini Monique to educate customers on culturally relevant foods — and to help them examine the foods they consume. “When you see a product with ‘natural flavors’, just start looking into what companies mean by that phrase — you should know exactly what’s in your favorite snacks,” she says. “Each of our bags tastes a little different because there are subtle differences in every handful of herbs we use to season it. To the big popcorn makers, that probably sounds like it doesn’t scale. But that’s real food — we’re actually leaning into those differences.”
It was a pleasure to learn more about Mellini Monique’s journey. For more posts, explore our Unlocking Success series, where we talk to entrepreneurs who are growing their businesses while serving their communities.