Sweet Utopian and the Mylk Bar's founding veganista, Ashley Renee, on the clean food hustle.
I started with $200 in my bank account with no savings. I got my commercial kitchen, permits, certifications, and taught myself how to write html/CSS and use Photoshop so I didn't need to depend on anyone.
Tell me about the Mylk Bar product line. What sparked the idea for it? Why is it your anchor product?
So Sweet Utopian is the company that bakes and presses plant-based, vegan, gluten friendly, and soy free foods and beverages. The Mylk Bar is what brings those foods and beverages to life, incorporating Sweet Utopian basics into beautiful prepared masterpieces. Currently, we have brownies, blondies, 30+ flavors of almond-hazelnut mylk, bagel toppers, mylk teas, Utopian Creme, baked oatmeal, granola, and cookie dough. I love my independent retailers, but I knew my products could be transformed into more than just a brownie, but a brownie stacked with chocolate chip and pistachio cookie dough and maple bourbon creme drizzled with chocolate ganache and gold sprinkles with a tiny flag that reads something witty like "Surrender". Sweet Utopian Mylk Bar is an experience for everyone.
Are you looking to expand the line to include other products?
Right now, my goal is to expand the experience and later expand the product line. I am in the works for something awesome for 2019.
So what's next for Sweet Utopian?
Before hurricane Irma, I was preparing to purchase a trailer to build out a Mylk Bar. After all of Irma's rage and glory, the focus turned to recouping and keeping the business afloat. All my inventory had to be thrown out, weeks went by where I couldn't even order ingredients to bake or press due to back orders in shipping. On November 25th I am starting a 30-day Kickstarter campaign to build this mylk bar and offer my foods and vision not only to my state, but to requested states like New York, the Carolinas, California, and Georgia. The mylk bar will run on solar power, be completely self- sustainable, and the blueprint to franchising.
I'd love to have mobile mylk bars take over and offer aspiring entrepreneurs the opportunity to run them.
That's so baller.
Evolution is inevitable, so I can only imagine what will come of my company in the future. I am grateful for all the lessons I have learned throughout this courageous, wild journey and no one can take that away from me.
People are so much more conscientious of what they are putting into their bodies these days. They are understanding the effects food and fitness has on their work performance, health and overall happiness. Vegan- and vegatarianism is no longer exclusively tied to tree hugging white people and Rastafarians. Women of color are also redefining vegan dining. You are pioneering right now with Sweet Utopian, which is what originally caught my attention. Say hello to Sweet Utopian and the Mylk Bar that fuels it. So, what planet are you visiting from?
Thank you, an entrepreneur wears so many hats it's difficult to keep up with the idea they've created a game changer. I grew up in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida with an obese mother who later had to have a liver transplant because the food she ate took a deathly toll on her body. Her illness plagued her for years; while I was in college in Orlando, she'd be in and out of the hospital, on several medications, and always in pain or some sort of discomfort. I believe she is secretly the antithesis of the conception of my plant based mecca. As a child I ate whatever my mother ate, burgers, chicken nuggets, steak, the list goes on. As I got older, I slowly began to transition. In middle school, I stopped using cow's milk and replaced it with soy. In high school, I slowed down on the red meats and pork. During college my diet consisted of almond milk, chicken, fish, grains, and vegetables. A dear friend told me about his journey with veganism and introduced me to a documentary called Vegucated. That same night I looked at my cat and thought, "whoa... we're a culture that is told what to eat and how to consume it. If we're eating someone's chicken, why aren't we eating someone's cat or dog? Something's systematically wrong." Naturally, I decided to go vegan and later found out I had a smorgasbord of food sensitivities. When grocery shopping, there many products claiming to have no animal biproducts, free of gluten and soy but they all tasted like cardboard. I decided to make some granola from scratch, throwing in a variety of nuts, seeds, fruits, and layering it all with dark chocolate. After sampling the granola at an open mic, my friends suggested I should bag it up and sell it. So I did. From granola, to brownies, to mylk, to bagel toppers, to cookie dough, my little company has grown to a gem of food conscious Central Florida.
Homegrown Co-Op and Natura Cafe were my first buyers and I eventually I did a deal on Living Social. In total, 57 people showed up with a voucher and left with $40 worth of Sweet Utopian foods. One of those people came twice and eventually became my partner. The two of us worked together for quite a while before she chose a different path. It was then I realized she took my company more seriously than I. I met Celine (the proud owner of Valhalla and Valkyrie Doughnuts) at a small, trendy farmer's market. She later became the person who propelled me to not give up on my business. Last year I quit all my part-time jobs and focused on Sweet Utopian. Revamped my brand, changed the structure, and manifested my mission to show people plant-based doesn't have to be scary. There were bad business deals, investments, losses, gains, and then hurricane Irma. I've received an overwhelming amount of support from my community with word of mouth and on Small Business Saturday (November 25th) I will be launching a Kickstarter campaign to build a self-sustainable, mobile mylk bar to expand my mission.
What has the process been like trying to get Sweet Utopian off the ground? Did you have a lot of support or has it been a one women army?
It's been a labor of understanding and love. Peaks and valleys, if you will.
What has been one of your most exciting accomplishments in launching the company?
THE LESSON OF RESILIENCE. Someone once told me, "The only way to be in business, is to be in business." I could've waited years and done research, networked until everyone knew my name and intentions, built up enough capital to start in a brick and mortar instead, I dove right into business with everything I was capable of and beyond. A rough start eventually creates a smooth path. Mistakes have become my teachers and I am no longer afraid of failing miserably because I know I can lick my wounds and press on!
What has been the most difficult or frustrating aspect?
RESPECT. As a young, black woman in business, I've experienced a harsh introduction to the world of commerce. I've been felt up by a member of the chamber of commerce, I've been taken advantage of, turned away, stood up by potential investors who cancelled after I posted a picture of myself on Sweet Utopian's Instagram. Even now, people are actively attempting to replicate my business by making their bottles and caps look like mine, the list goes on. I've made some adjustments to be taken seriously and I no longer entertain the bullshit.
What is some business advice, resources or insight that we can share with our readers?
Start with a team of like-minded people who hold each other accountable. It's always good to have someone who doesn't think like you. They'll see the cracks you are unaware of and vice versa. KNOW YOUR COSTS and OPEN A BUSINESS SAVINGS ACCOUNT.
Who have you pulled inspiration or motivation from? I mean this in relation to both your personal and professional life.
Although my mother was ill, I watched her nurse her father until his passing. She didn't wither away into the deep depths of despair, she pressed on. There were times I'd call Celine expressing my frustrations and she'd smack sense into me with her motivational words.