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"Holy Crap," Sales of BC cereal are Booming

This article by Rasha Mourtada, appeared in Business without Borders on February 7, 2013

A healthy product goes from farmers’ market to United States—and outer space—in two years 

Brian and Corin Mullins’ introduction to international sales came at an unexpected place—a local B.C. farmers’ market. The retired couple had been selling batches of their BC cereal — a gluten and dairy-free product called Holy Crap—for $10 a bag at the Granville Island farmers’ market in Vancouver every weekend since November 2009.

 

Thanks to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the market received a flood of tourists that February. “We saw 50,000 people a day coming by our table at the market,” says Corin, who worked as a flight attendant for 31 years before retiring and turning her attention to creating the chia and hemp cereal, which is also free of sugar and salt. “People from all over the world were buying our cereal,” she says. “And to this day some of them are still our customers.”

Today, Holy Crap has moved far beyond the Granville Island farmers’ market. It’s sold in 1,500 stores across Canada, including grocery store chains Sobeys and Whole Foods, and in about 60 stores in the United States as well as 11 countries internationally through online sales.

After experiencing the Montreal ice storm in 1998, the Mullins were intrigued by the idea of producing a survival kit that contained healthier options than the sugary foods most kits include. Once she retired, Corin tackled the job of coming up with a shelf-stable cereal for such a kit.

After trying 21 different recipes, Corin was finally satisfied with a cereal she came up with—a mixture of chia, hemp, dried apples, cranberries, raisins and cinnamon that’s enjoyed mixed with milk, yogurt or water. (In the end, the kit never came to be.)

The Mullins initially launched their cereal at their local farmers’ market in Sechelt, B.C., under the name Hapi Food. But after their first weekend out, Brian wanted to change the name. “People would say, holy crap, this stuff is amazing,” he says, explaining where he got the idea for their cereal’s new moniker. “Everybody fought me on it. People said, ‘I’ll never buy a product called Holy Crap.’ But it’s an existing phrase that’s already out there and so it has a familiarity—it made people smile.”

Turns out, he was on to something. After the Mullins changed the name, sales went from 10 packages a day to 100.

By mid-2009, the Mullins knew limiting production to their home kitchen was going to slow growth. By the end of 2009 they were manufacturing and packaging their cereal in a commercial facility.

For the next year, they filled their Jeep with Holy Crap and headed to the Granville Island market, eventually bringing home $10,000 in cash sales for 1,000 bags each weekend.

Holy Crap’s turning point came in November 2010, when the couple appeared on Dragons’ Den, the CBC show in which entrepreneurs seek funding from its panel of high-profile investors. They walked away from the show with a deal—the quickest in the show’s history. But as it turned out, exposure from the show was enough to get Holy Crap off the ground and the Mullins never followed through with the financing.

“We did $1.5-million in sales that night,” Brian recalls. “We couldn’t believe our eyes. Usually we’d get 20 to 30 orders a day online at that point, but they were coming in 20 or 30 a minute.”

By mid-2010, the Mullins had started trying to get their products onto U.S. shelves, a process Brian calls “extremely difficult.” It would take a year and a half before they would clear all of the security and product checks. In the spring of 2012, Holy Crap finally appeared in U.S. stores.

The cereal’s journey through the process may have been hindered because hemp is on the product’s ingredient list. “We had to send the product to labs to test because we have hemp as an ingredient,” Brian says. Another complicating factor: the name. “There was some sensitivity to the name,” he says. “ People thinking, this can’t be real, it’s a joke.”

After about nine months and what felt like endless paperwork, Holy Crap received U.S. Department of Homeland Security clearance, and then it was time to set up their “pick and pack” system, which took another year. This involved securing a warehouse in the United States where the Mullins could ship their product—and the product in turn would then ship to U.S. retailers from there, saving on overall shipping costs.

The Mullins want to continue to build their U.S. business, which accounts for about 5% of their overall retail sales at the moment. But they haven’t chased U.S. retailers as aggressively as they might have because their priority continues to be to gain ground in the Canadian market, particularly eastern Canada, though they are adding about three U.S. retailers a day.

They never did take any money from their Dragons’ Den investor, but they have been taking his advice. Since their appearance on the show, the couple has worked with investor Jim Treliving as a consultant. “He advised us to really nail down the Canadian market and not to get tempted by the U.S. because it takes longer and costs more than anybody thinks,” Brian says.

Aside from the United States, the Mullins are looking at opportunities to get into stores in New Zealand and Israel. In the meantime, they are busy employing 20 people and running two warehouses and a factory to meet current demand for Holy Crap and their second cereal, Skinny B (a product that’s similar to Holy Crap but contains 50 per cent more chia and no dried fruit).

Recently their cereal went further than either of them ever imagined it could: Holy Crap, along with 11 other Canadian foods, won the Canadian Space Agency Snacks in Space contest and has been part of astronaut Chris Hadfield’s diet during his mission, scheduled to end this May. “This is a big deal,” Brian says. “Holy Crap has gone from the farmers’ market to the space station in two years.”


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