For the first twenty-three years of his life, Matt Mullens would eat just about anything — no restrictions whatsoever. But in 2018, he decided to take a dietary leap. He became vegan. “I realized the impact the dairy industry has on the environment, and I wanted to do something about it,” said Matt, who is now 25.
Matt Mullens is the founder of Empasta Cheeze, a vegan cheese company.
There was only one problem: He grew up loving comfort food and soon found himself missing some of his favorites, especially mac n’ cheese.
“A lot of the vegan cheeses on the market didn’t melt well,” Matt said. So, he turned to his kitchen and invented what would come to be known as Empasta Cheeze: a sustainable vegan cheese sauce.
With ingenuity and hustle, Matt turned his sauce into a burgeoning small business and then used a PayPal Empowerment Grant to turn it into a national e-commerce site.
When Matt first invented his sauce, he didn’t intend to sell it. He was a junior at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, studying engineering. “I was just experimenting in my kitchen with ingredients, and then, one day, I realized ‘Oh, this does taste pretty good,’” Matt said, divulging that his recipe includes potatoes, carrots, pea milk and a variety of spices. “My sauce doesn’t include major allergen ingredients like nuts, soy, gluten, and, of course, dairy. It's a great snack for parties,” he added.
He began sharing his vegan mac n’ cheese with friends and coworkers at Launch Greensboro, a local small business incubator where he was a business development intern. "I've always been interested in running my own business, so I thought I might try to open a vegan mac n’ cheese restaurant,” Matt said.
Matt makes Empasta Cheeze at a local community kitchen.
But the more he shared his mac n’ cheese, the more Matt realized that it was the sauce that people were most excited about. “They liked it because it was versatile. It had the potential for more than mac n’ cheese,” he said. Inspired by the feedback, he decided to make it a marketable product.
Matt’s friends threw him a business shower to help him get started. (Think baby shower but for an entrepreneur). At the shower, Matt cooked a vegan meal using his sauce, explained his idea, and party goers donated what they could. He used the funds to purchase an LLC for the business.
“I started this in the middle of undergrad. Funds were tight,” Matt said. The business shower taught him an important lesson in entrepreneurship: “I learned to let people help.”
Like any new business owner, Matt needed a catchy name. He came up with Empasta: a pun on “imposter” and portmanteau of empathy and pasta. “I chose empathy, because we’re a company that cares about eating healthy and caring for the planet, and pasta because of the company’s mac n’ cheese-inspired origins,” Matt said.
Friends weren’t the only ones who helped. In 2019, his coworkers put him in touch with Kitchen Connects, another local small business incubator focused on food entrepreneurs. There, he obtained the necessary food production certifications, found a community kitchen where he could cook and signed up to sell the sauce at a local farmers market. It’s at the farmers market that he had his “aha” moment.
“I think I sold 25 or 26 containers in a day,” Matt said. “Seeing my customers’ faces, and how my business was impacting them in a positive way, that was when I realized I’m really doing what I’m supposed to do.”
Matt purchases locally grown carrots to make Empasta Cheeze.
Building his business required extreme commitment. Matt went door-to-door to local bars and grocery stores, asking them to stock Empasta. He partnered with other local businesses for giveaways and donated containers of his sauce to a fundraiser for the Nehemiah Community Empowerment Center, a local nonprofit helping improve STEM education. This helped him promote his business and give back to the community all at once. “It’s really been a collaborative effort to build my business,” said Matt, whose sauce is made from locally sourced, healthy ingredients.
“Using local produce and making the cheese in a local community kitchen means Empasta’s proceeds help support local farmers and improve the health of other families in Greensboro,” he said.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, sales from the local farmers market and bars came to a halt, so Matt had to get creative about how to reach customers. Like many other business owners, he knew he’d need to grow his product’s online presence and find a safe way to ship, but he lacked funding. “I would’ve had to bankroll it entirely from my own, personal money,” he said.
Matt shares the perfect vegan snack: pretzels and Empasta Cheeze.
Matt saw the PayPal Empowerment Grant for Black Businesses on Twitter and applied the same day. (The $10 million grant program, in partnership with the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, has since paused accepting new applications due to an overwhelming response). “I had to make some decisions. How do I keep this alive?” he said. “There’s the saying, ‘necessity breeds innovation,’ and that’s where I came up with the idea to pivot to e-commerce.”
When he found out he received the funding, he carefully devised an action plan. “I wanted to be sure I was intentional with how I spent it,” he said.
He hired a social media manager to help promote the product, so he could reach a larger customer base while still focusing on making all of the sauce himself. It was transformative: now Empasta shares recipes for vegan nachos, loaded baked potatoes and mac n’ cheese on Instagram and TikTok to generate interest.
With help from PayPal, Empasta Cheeze now ships nationwide.
The challenge of packaging and shipping his sauce had seemed too daunting at first, but Matt found a way to adapt. With some of the remaining grant funding – and a bit of trial and error – Matt found a secure, spoil-proof and recyclable way to jar and ship his sauce. He also integrated PayPal Checkout into his e-commerce site. “Using PayPal gives my customers confidence when they’re checking out. They know it’s a safe transaction, which has been helpful in streamlining sales,” he said.
Though the pandemic posed challenges, hiring a teammate and pivoting to a socially distant, e-commerce business model allowed Matt’s business to grow. Orders began pouring in from across the U.S., and Empasta sales rose in 2020.
For Matt, the online growth has been pleasantly surprising. “I’ve shipped Empasta Cheeze to California, Michigan and even Ohio. I mean - I don't know anyone in Ohio,” he said, smiling. “I’m proud to be creating something that has a positive impact on people and the planet.” Plus, he added, “You don't have to be vegan to appreciate that vegan food is, simply, tasty."
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