Pipsnacks Founders Talk Mixing Family and Business

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Siblings Jeff and Jen Martin’s childhood snacking looked just a little bit different than your stereotypical ’90s kid fare of Dunkaroos, fruit snacks, and microwave popcorn. Jen has had a slew of food allergies since childhood, meaning she couldn’t eat many of the popular processed snacks on the playground. Because of her experience, the siblings grew up understanding how food made them feel from an early age—and it served them well years later when they founded Pipsnacks along with Jeff’s wife, Teresa Tsou.

The brand launched with heirloom popcorn (using corn made without commercial farming practices) in 2012 and with lots of hard work (plus endorsements from Oprah and Shark Tank‘s Barbara Corcoran), has expanded to include cheese balls, corn dippers, crackers, and crunchies (cheese doodle-like snacks). Using heirloom kernels is a commonality across the brand but there’s something else that’s vital to Pipsnacks: family.

Well+Good: From what I understand, Jen, we have you moving apartments to thank for the whole Pipsnacks brand. Is that right?

Jen Martin: Yes. I was in college and living in Chicago working a bunch of part-time jobs, one of which was at a health food store. There would be a co-op outside it every weekend and one of the farmers, who knew I had a lot of food allergies and that regular popcorn hurt my stomach, brought me some heirloom popcorn to try. It turned out to be the best popcorn I’d ever tried—and it didn’t hurt my stomach at all. A few days later, Jeff came over to help me move and all we had to eat were kernels to make the heirloom popcorn. Jeff loved it just as much as I did and was like, “We should sell this.”

Jeff Martin: We were surrounded by boxes in her studio apartment and were both just eating the popcorn straight from a hot pot on the stove. It was this lightbulb moment.

Jen: Moving apartments wasn’t the first time Jeff has helped me, too. In college, I had a juice business. I made juices and would deliver them around Chicago. I ended up getting more customers than I could handle, so Jeff came over and helped me make juices and deliver them.

Well+Good: How did you go from enjoying popcorn in your empty studio apartment to turning it into an all-out business?

Jen: We didn’t have a lot of money, but we just figured it out as we went along. We had a student make our logo. We started by selling [the product] in little brown paper bags at the farmers’ market. But we were literally popping popcorn in our mom’s spaghetti pot and sifting it in a frying basket. It was not official popcorn-making equipment by any stretch of the imagination.

Then one day, we were at the farmers’ market selling popcorn and it was really hot. There was a woman walking around and we offered her some shade and a place to cool down. She ended up being a scout for Oprah’s Favorite Things. The business really took off from there. Soon after that, we went on Shark Tank.

Jeff: We were really a bootstrapped operation until Shark Tank, but we made it work. Our thought process at the time was to say yes to opportunities and to just figure it out later.

Jen: One really cool moment was when we applied to get subsidized rent for a 2,000 square foot commercial kitchen space in Harlem and got approved. We could really start making a lot more products after that.

Well+Good: Pipsnacks is truly a family business. You’re siblings and, Jeff, your wife is the third co-founder. Do you think that being family makes business easier or tricker?

Jen: Jeff and I have always been really good friends and liked hanging out together. We’re also different in enough ways that we complement each other, which works well in terms of being business partners. On top of that, not only do I care so much about this company, but I care so much about my family and I don’t want to let them down. That pushes me to work even harder.

Jeff: I feel the same way. Our whole family is involved. Thanksgiving is a huge holiday for us and for the past four years, one day during Thanksgiving weekend is spent at the Harlem kitchen and everyone has a job to do. Some people do food safety, some pop popcorn, some do labeling…It’s madness but I love it.

Well+Good: What did you guys snack on growing up?

Jeff: I actually had a popcorn stand in my room as a kid. I also had a “restaurant.” I’d give my parents a grocery list of what to buy at the store and then my brother, Andy, and I would make up a menu. We called it Jeff & Andy’s Diner. People would order food, like sandwiches, and we’d charge them 25 cents or 50 cents. One day Jen ran out of change and she was hungry so she went crying to our mom. Then we had to do it for free. But other than that, we had CapriSuns and fruit snacks. Jen had a lot of food allergies so we had healthy snacks, like apples and peanut butter.

Jen: It helped us with the business later because I learned pretty early on that food made me feel certain ways. So making better alternatives to foods we loved was something we’d already been thinking about our entire lives, in a way. That’s really what we’ve kept in mind as we expanded the line to other foods, like cheeseballs, crackers, and corn chips.

Well+Good: Most kids don’t really think about where their food is coming from, but it sounds like you were making that connection early on and it’s stayed with you.

Jeff: The commercialism of food is great in a lot of ways, but it has also set us back in some ways, including the benefits you get from food. That’s why we focus on heirloom [corn] so much. The nutritional profile has been preserved more. Heirloom crops have never been touched in a lab or hybridized. Birds, bees, and bugs are a natural part of the process and there are no chemicals. That leads to a more nutrient-dense product. We’re educating ourselves every day on things like soil health. One of our long-term goals is to be 100 percent regenerative organic because it’s better for both people and the environment.

Well+Good: Are you working on anything else that you’re excited about?

Jen: Something else that’s important to us is reframing diversity inclusion, not just in our own company but the entire food industry. We think about things like, how do we go to a trade show and it’s not just a pocket of Black- or minority-founded brands? How do we make changes that lead to more representation? Part of that is sharing information and creating a professional network that is collaborative. The learning curve to break into this business is so steep. We’re trying to do our part so that minority-founded brands have access to information and an equal opportunity to take their shot.

Jeff: We’re doing what we can to extend our network to other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) CEOs and founders to pull our resources. They may be our direct competitors on the shelves, but behind the scenes we’re banding together. It’s not about competition; it’s about making a long-term positive impact.

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