As she relayed the story of starting Soul Popped, a remarkable black-owned brand for our Brands We Love, De J. Lozada projected a question that unites all entrepreneurs.
“What do I have that’s authentically mine that’s not being replicated on the market yet?”
For De J., it was soul food. Her gift was making popcorn taste like anything. She honed the craft while helping her oldest son, who has Asperger syndrome, try new flavors as a kid. When she needed him to try something new, she introduced it through popcorn first.
Making soul food-inspired popcorn was De J.’s way of showing love to family and friends. She’d known hunger and homelessness as a child and young adult, and cooking was a spiritual outlet for her, a hobby and a passion while she pursued her professional goals. For 10 years, even though she routinely encountered deep racial bias, she worked overseas for the U.S. Department of Defense, where she gained a deeper appreciation for unprocessed, natural and whole-food ingredients.
Eventually, she returned back to the states. And, unfortunately, her health turned for the worse. For the next eight and a half years, De J. estimates, she was in the hospital a minimum of four days a month, every month. As a single mother, she was also working, providing for her children, a niece and her aging father.
Come 2016, while keeping up with tuition payments for her son and niece, who were both in college, having not paid her mortgage in many months and having exhausted her savings paying medical bills, De J. had just $53 left in her bank account.
And there she was, contemplating another classic entrepreneurial question:
“How can I turn what I have into something meaningful for my family?”
De J. invested that money in coconut oil, popcorn and seasonings, and went back to the kitchen. The first flavor she created was (vegan) fried chicken. And with fried chicken, you gotta have mac and cheese. And of course dessert, which had to be banana pudding.
Kids in her neighborhood were all the happier to sample her popcorn, and they named the flavors right away. She made a handful of other flavors, put the popcorn in little baggies secured with twist ties, and sold out the first day. By the second week, she was selling her popcorn near a popular Jamaican food court in downtown Austin. Inside a month, she had enough money to buy equipment to get into a farmers market.
She became the market’s first black vendor, and one of its highest selling, helping it to attract more black merchants along the way. And her farmers market success attracted the attention of SKU, a consumer products accelerator. While completing the program, she realized it would have been more appropriate for her to join a business incubator. But then, she just didn’t know, which motivated her to form the National Association of Black Food Manufacturers (NABFM), to help others access information and understanding and increase the number of black-owned food brands in the industry.
In 2019 and heading into 2020, Soul Popped was booming. De J. had converted her farmers market success into a brick-and-mortar retail location in a mall, where they would create new flavors for customers on the spot. Her store, playing dance music and featuring a disco ball, was a destination. And she was fielding offers from malls across the country for new Soul Popped stores. What started out as $53 and an idea grew into a $1 million annual gross revenue company.
Come spring 2020, De J. initially maintained some delivery business, then phased it out as the risk of serious illness from coronavirus became more clear for herself and her father, who’s now 85. She shifted to primarily online sales, and also responded to a need in the community by starting a fundraising, or “dreamraising,” as De J. calls it, arm of the business.
Through Good Trouble Gourmet, organizations can raise money entirely online and receive 50% of the profits. The first cohorts are up and running now, and under the banner of history. Some Good Trouble Gourmet flavors (which are different from Soul Popped’s signature soul food line) pay homage to significant moments and figures in black history, with names like Peace, Love and Understanding and Rumble in the Jungle.
And the name of the company derives from a quote by the late John Lewis, who devoted his life to racial justice and equality, having served as a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, organizing the March on Washington in lockstep with Martin Luther King Jr., and serving in the Atlanta City Council before going on to a decades-long career representing Georgia’s fifth district in the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 2018, Lewis said, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
We commend De J. for her conviction to build a business that lifted up her family, brought joy to others, and today promises to fuel many dreams. And, we hope to help the packaged food and beverage business become more inclusive by featuring her story and her brand. Go check out Soul Popped, Good Trouble Gourmet or the NABFM today.
Vladimir Jones is Colorado’s original independent, integrated advertising agency, with offices in Denver and Colorado Springs. We believe in brilliant brands and love making the world love them as much as we do.