Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery was recently able to talk to Jeff Martin, Jenn Martin, and Teresa Tsou, founders of Pipcorn, on using heirloom corn in its products, its Shark Tank beginnings, and being selected for Oprah's Favorite Things list.
Liz Parker: How did Pipcorn start, and what role did Shark Tank play in its beginnings?
Jen Martin: As someone who struggled with a lot of dietary issues during college, I was recommended by a farmer to try smaller kernels from Heirloom Corn that are easier to digest. When my brother Jeff visited me to help me move apartments, we made a batch of popcorn and immediately consumed every last kernel. The shells were incredibly delicate and the flavor was like nothing I'd ever had. We couldn’t stop eating them! Jeff’s immediate reaction was, "We have to sell this!" After much thinking, strategizing, and snacking, Jeff, Teresa, and I decided to go all-in and turn these special heirloom popcorn kernels into a family business. In our first few years, we were popping around the clock and hand-packaging our own products to sell at local farmers' markets. Our heirloom popcorn was an instant hit with the crowds!
Jeff Martin: We originally went down the path with Shark Tank after they saw us featured on Oprah’s Favorite Things in 2012. After a few rounds of talking to the producers, we quickly realized we weren’t ready, so we pulled the plug on the audition process. It felt crazy, like, were we really telling Shark Tank "it’s not you, it’s me" and to check back next year?! We were worried we might have lost our chance, but we knew it was the right decision. We emailed the following year when we knew our business was in a much better place to make a deal! Going on the show, we had one goal: to get a deal with Barbara Corcoran. We watched endless episodes of Shark Tank to see what types of questions Barbara might ask and practiced as a group. We even adjusted our valuation right before walking out on stage and it paid off! Partnering with Barbara was a no-brainer, as she not only had the most food experience on the show at the time, but also inspired us with her own story! Immediately after our episode aired, we saw a massive impact on our business. The Shark Tank effect is real!
LP: What was the criteria to make “Oprah’s Favorite Things” list?
Jen Martin: The criteria to make Oprah’s Favorite Things is truly to have a product that Oprah really loves. Oprah really does decide what makes the list or not, which makes getting picked even more exciting!
LP: What made the company decide to use heirloom corn as its main ingredient?
Jeff Martin: Our heirloom corn is incredibly special for three main reasons:
- Flavor. Our corn packs the best possible flavor given the focus on natural evolution and seed preservation. Every year, the best of the best seeds are saved to plant the next year, resulting in exceptional flavor and the absolute highest quality.
- Sustainability. Among other environmentally friendly attributes, our heirloom corn is open pollinated, meaning the wind, birds, and insects do the hard work. This means fewer trips in the field for farmers and fewer exhaust fumes in the air. Even more importantly, the human-created barriers to pollination don't exist, yielding more genetically diverse, resilient crops.
- Versatility. Our special heirloom corn is the reason why we can make so many amazing snacks like Cheese Balls, Crunchies, Popcorn, Corn Dippers and Crackers!
LP: Anything new on the horizon for the company?
Teresa Tsou: As far as what’s to come… so much! We started Pipcorn with the idea of reinventing our favorite nostalgic snacks using heirloom grains and real ingredients and that’s exactly what we plan to continue doing! For now we are focused on growing the new innovation we’ve recently launched (4 products in the past 1.5 years) but not to worry, we’re always testing new ideas because that’s what we love to do!
Beyond product innovation, we’re hyper focused on our sustainability goals, including being Regenerative Organic Certified by 2024. It’s important to us that we’re always mindful of our impact on the world, which is why we launched our Upcycled Snack Crackers last year so we could utilize nearly 100 percent of all the heirloom corn that we grow. It’s crazy to think we just celebrated our 9 year anniversary! 2021 is a big growth year for us with Pipcorn popping up on more grocery shelves and our team expanding as we continue to grow our family of heirloom snacks.