This article appeared in the Vancouver Sun on December 3, 2011 and on the Vancouver Sun's staff blog / The Green Man on November 25, 2011 by Randy Shore
Corin Mullins started experimenting with healthy breakfast cereals after her husband Brian was diagnosed with diabetes. “The first batch tasted awful,” she admitted. “It was so bad.” Brian had been eating chia — an ancient seed crop originally grown in Mexico that is rich in fibre and omega-3 fatty acids — and that was an important component of the recipe from the start, but not an easy base from which to build a flavour profile. “We had no salt, no sugar and no fruit and it was pretty bland,” Brian said. Salt and sugar are still nowhere to be found in the Holy Crap recipe, nor in its sister product Skinny B. Cranberries, raisins and apples provide the sweetness naturally. Corin started adding and subtracting ingredients, tasting and rejecting formulations.
Twenty-one recipes later they had a cereal that not only made Brian feel better and helped him lose weight, it was good enough to sell. Selling cereal, though, was not part of their business plan. “We had originally intended to include the cereal as a stable food in emergency kits,” she said. They had the idea after weathering an ice storm in Montreal. “But people didn’t want the kits. They wanted the cereal.”
The Mullinses started to sell their cereal at farmers markets and up ’til November of last year they had made about $58,000 hawking cereal off $35 folding tables in parking lots, from Granville Island and from a small website. At first sales were slow. Corin got a space at the Sechelt farmers market and hung a sign listing the attributes and ingredients of her cereal, then called Hapi. “We sold about ten bags,” she recalled. “We were thrilled.” Brian pressed for a name change — Holy Crap — an acronym of the cereal’s most flavourful components, Cranberries, Raisins, Apple Pie — the combination of apple and cinnamon. C.R.A.P.
Corin was horrified. “I said I would never sell Holy Crap,” she said. “But he talked me into it because were only supposed to do [the business] for the summer. We are supposed to be retired.” Their aspirations for the cereal were modest as Brian had retired from a career in marketing and Corin hers as a flight attendant for Air Canada. They sought a quiet life on the Sunshine Coast. “But the first day selling the cereal as Holy Crap I sold a hundred bags,” she said. “We never went back; I sell Holy Crap now.”
They appeared with their colourfully rebranded cereal on the CBC entrepreneurial reality show Dragon’s Den last November. The next day they had $1.5 million in orders, an overwhelmed website and a very suspicious manager at Paypal, who wondered whether their sudden flood of orders was the result of some clever Internet scam. Paypal agreed to release the money only in small dollops, as Corin provided proof of shipment.
They turned out not to need the cash from their Dragon partner, Boston Pizza CEO Jim Treliving, but spent many hours ironing out their business plan with their TV mentor. Their gross this year, 12 months post-Dragon, will be $5 million. They now employ 16 people and have outgrown the office and factory opened just a few months ago. The Dragon’s Den crew has wrapped up shooting on the Sunshine Coast for a followup segment on Holy Crap to air in the new year.
To weather the initial flood of orders the Mullinses hired what family they had on the Coast and their friends, too. At first, they double shifted and rushed. But people got sore from pouring cereal and fruit by hand and orders were not always filled correctly. “If customers complained, we just sent them replacement orders,” Brian said. “We didn’t even check.”
Oddly, and heartwarmingly, people who got too much cereal by accident started sending in cheques for the extra cereal unprompted, he said. Despite the sudden cash flow, or perhaps because of it, the cereal entrepreneurs have their mixing and packaging machinery custom made. They are not only highly ergonomic for the employees — who after all, are people who are likely to be sitting across the dinner table from them at family Christmas — they take small batches to avoid any damage to the grains of cereal.
“If you mix the cereal in industrial grade equipment you don’t get the same amount of raisins in every bag and you don’t get the same amount of buckwheat,” Brian said.
People really care. One customer counted the seeds in two bags of cereal and sent back a comparative analysis, complaining about the inconsistent number of seeds, he said. The cereal is designed to be nutrient dense and a catalyst for efficient waste disposal, if you get my drift. The combination or chia, hemp seed and buckwheat with the aforementioned fruits is more than efficient.
The serving size is two tablespoons and I’m begging you, do not exceed that. But for a lot of people it not so much what’s in the cereal as what is not. No gluten, no dairy, and therefore no lactose. No meat products or fats, and therefore it is vegan. No nuts either and of course it is all organic.
“We’ve heard from people that their doctors are prescribing it,” said Brian. People recovering from surgery or who are taking opiate drugs during convalescence from serious illness really benefit from the cereal’s mild laxative effects, he said.
Though the company is growing — distribution is underway or in process to at least 11 countries and thousands of stores — Corin and Brian are dialing back their travel and promotion schedules to stay closer to home, instead sending employees to turn people on at trade shows and bring back the orders. They are, after all, retired.