By Danielle Wong, News Correspondent
Northeastern alumnus (2005, M.B.A. 2010) Reuben Taube and his brother Ari began production on Mini Pops, a new alternative to popcorn, in August 2010. The product differentiates itself in the fact that it’s made from air-popped sorghum grain instead of corn kernels.
Ari Taube, president and chief executive of Mini Pops, said he drew inspiration for the idea from something he saw on television.
“The first time I saw sorghum grain was actually on TV,” he said. “It was on a show called ‘Bizarre Foods’ on the Travel Channel. The show was taking place in Ethiopia. After seeing it, I really just wanted to try it. I managed to get my hands on some of the grain and popped it at home. It tasted great, it was really crunchy; basically like mini popcorn. That’s when a spark went off in my mind.”
Taube researched the market and was surprised to find out that most people were unfamiliar with sorghum grain, which can be fermented to create alcohol and is found primarily in Africa and southeast Asia.
“I started calling health food stores, specialty stores and natural markets all around the country, and nobody had ever heard of popped sorghum,” he said. “That’s when I concluded that it could be a really viable product.”
Sorghum is the fifth-most harvested cereal grain in the world. It requires 50 percent less water to grow than corn. The company prides itself on purchasing all of its sorghum grain from US family farms. For these reasons, the brothers are also trying to establish Mini Pops as a “green” product.
The process of making Mini Pops is similar to that of making popcorn. The sorghum is exposed to high heat, causing it to expand until the grain explodes. Taube said sorghum possesses qualities that set it far apart from classic popcorn.
“Sorghum has several nutritional properties that make it healthier than popcorn,” he said.
The grain has around 20 fewer calories, about two grams less fat and almost six times less sodium than popcorn while packing on an average of two grams more protein, two percent more calcium and nine percent more iron per serving.
All of the ingredients are gluten-free, organic and kosher. The company doesn’t pop the grain in oil, instead, the sorghum is seasoned in a variety of spices depending on the flavor like caramel, sea salt and white cheddar.
Since the product is fairly new, many students have not heard about Mini Pops.
“Probably the biggest challenge is educating the public about what it is we’re actually popping and spreading awareness about our product,” Taube said.
At the beginning of this year, Mini Pops won $10,000 in gap funding from Northeastern University’s Inter-Disciplinary Entrepreneurship Accelerator (IDEA), an organization aimed at helping entrepreneurial students develop their business ideas.
Michael Hans, chief executive of IDEA, told The News that the Taubes have come a long way since beginning the program.
“IDEA has provided them with coaching, resources, $10,000 of funding as well as numerous connections and mentors,” he said. “They have made tremendous progress since they began working with IDEA. With any food product, there are numerous barriers to entry such as competition, supply chain issues and even just getting shelf space.”
The Taubes used IDEA’s grant to purchase new machinery for their business. Hans said Mini Pops did not have the best machinery to run the operation efficiently, so IDEA was able to fund them because they proved themselves to be marketable.
As the company expands, Mini Pops is making its way into several stores all over Massachusetts, including Whole Foods, for a price that usually falls between $2.59 and $2.99. Taube said getting into stores was a significant milestone
“Being adopted into Whole Foods really opens up a lot of doors,” he said. “I think it’s been a huge accomplishment on our part. But getting into the company on a national level is really where we want to be. It would help us get into a lot of other food chain stores and ultimately expand our business.”
In terms of the future, Taube sees Mini Pops turning into another basic household staple. “We want Mini Pops to become a conventional snack as opposed to a specialty snack,” he said.
Hans predicts more success as the brothers continue to expand Mini Pops.
“I honestly have nothing but positive things to say about their venture, the time they’ve put in, and where they’re headed,” he said.
Emma Zheng, a freshman undeclared student, said she eats Mini Pops all the time and the taste reminds her of Quaker Caramel Clusters.
“I think they’re really small,” she said. “They should be bigger. I thought it was going to be some seaweed pill-like technology, like they’re supposed to fill you up, but they don’t.”