"Together Talks" feature # 38: Popadelics/Fun-Gal Snacks
Some Background on Popadelics/Fungal Snacks
In today's edition of the "Together Talks" campaign, KLS welcomes Popadelics/Fun-Gal Snacks and Co-Founder, Marilyn Yang. Trippin’ flavor. Killer crunch. Their craveable caps are shiitake mushrooms reimagined for the modern superfood snacker. As much as they like snacking, Co-Founders Marilyn Yang and Michael Casali also like to stay healthy. When thinking about all the current snacking options available, they realized that they all taste the same. Kale chips, Seaweed chips, the list goes on — none of these snacking trends offered anything interesting, unique, or delicious. So they came up with a better-for-you snack that delivers on the flavor standards they craved. Popadelics Crunchy Mushroom Chips aren’t just a snack, they’re an experience.
Popadelics creator and original “fun gal” Marilyn Yang founded Fun-Gal Snacks on a mission to create innovative snacks that harness the benefits of mushrooms and other underloved veggies—all while supporting social causes.
The idea of the company started during the pandemic, July 2020 to be specific. Marilyn and her partner, Michael, who both work in the finance world, conjured the idea. She told us they had so much time during the pandemic like all of us and had always wanted to create a business. They shared a lifelong love of mushrooms, so that was the first domino. Then they began searching for mushroom snacks. They realized there were little to no options when it came to mushroom chips. There are kale, corn, and potato, but no mushroom chips. With the foundation laid, they got to work creating what would become Popadelics/Fun-Gal Snacks.
Making their Mark
Marilyn joked that the company was their "COVID Baby". The Company was formally incorporated in July 2020, and the product first launched in April 2022. To date, there have been 3 iterations of the product, with the latest having been released in March 2023. Marilyn advised us they are always trying to innovate and improve. They want to be conscious of consumers' wants, desires, and feedback. But they also realize there is a balance. The company is always evaluating how much cleaner they make their ingredients. They are also evaluating how to improve sustainability and always consider removing ingredients that may give consumers pause. Ultimately, they walk a fine rope making sure taste is never sacrificed.
Innovation isn't just with the product, packaging, or branding, but also their reach and distribution. The company began as a D2C brand in April 2022. Quickly they followed that up by beginning to sell on Amazon. They then first started to reach out to independent natural food stores in June 2022. Currently, they are in nearly 400 stores across the US. The product originally targeted the natural foods market, but is also gaining momentum among conventional grocery stores.
Getting brand exposure has been one of the challenges for the company, but Marilyn enjoys the uniqueness. Quickly they figured out how expensive digital marketing was, and that as a self-funded startup, it didn't make sense to allocate funds in that way. They realized guerilla marketing and developing a strong, organic online presence made the most sense for the company. They leaned in on getting the product in consumers' mouths since mushroom chips are such a new product and a new space. They participate in nearly every sample opportunity that arises. Strategically they have also partnered with relevant cultural events including music festivals and most recently provided product for a pool party held during Coachella.
We asked Marilyn, what differentiates Popadelics from competitors, and she told us, "There are mushroom jerkies out there, but no hip, modern, homegrown brand targeted to the younger, American audience in the mushroom chip world. Similar products were mostly foreign and formulated for a primarily Asian audience. Rarely were they found in mainstream stores." Popadelics targets people looking for adventurous foods, who want to eat well, but not sacrifice on taste. She continued, "We are providing a new product in the space to replace traditional, unhealthier snack options but tastes just as good.”
The connection to the local community is also vital to Popadelics. They take pride in establishing a relevant presence in music, art, and other cultural areas given their grassroots approach. Being a start-up in the CPG industry also allows them to remain nimble and adaptive. Marilyn said that compared to big conglomerates which are only capable of making incremental changes slowly, her company can make swift changes that can have ripple effects and usher in big impacts. She values this type of not only transparency, but also creativity to mold the company.
Marilyn and Mike also founded the Fun-Gal Snacks Foundation, a charitable foundation which partners with a number of causes related to health and wellness. Her overall goal is to make mushrooms of all kinds mainstream. One avenue for this is supporting research into the use of psilocybin to treat mental health, namely at John Hopkins. Also, Popadelics has partnered with local organizations like Welcome to Chinatown and also other events supporting the AAPI community, as well as charitable organizations in the brand’s hometown of NYC such as Wellfare, which helps provide access to healthier pantry options to underprivileged communities.
We asked Marilyn about the goals for the remainder of 2023 and beyond. She told us they hope to at least double their store count while focusing on retail growth. In the years to come, they hope to ultimately expand into foodservice, particularly office pantries.
When we asked her what challenges may pose as obstacles to reaching those goals, she shared, "Being bootstrapped always makes it a challenge financially and resource-wise. We have to be selective about our marketing efforts and the events we attend. Learning and gaining experience in the CPG industry as a whole has also been a learning curve. Neither of us comes from this space and it is completely new to us, so understanding all of the complexities keeps us on our toes. Luckily, we both come from the fast-paced world of finance, which allows us to be efficient once we learn the ropes.”
All in without, all in
Marilyn and Michael are a special set of founders as this is not their only work. While completely invested in this company, it is not their only source of work, income, or responsibility. Marilyn shared how she thinks that having other streams of income has allowed them to grow and succeed at the pace they have because the added stress factors aren't built in. She told us, "I couldn't imagine doing this and only this. We have that stability and security to fall back on. We chose to go this route, because it made more sense for our goals and aligned with our vision to grow our business the way we wanted to, without too many cooks in the kitchen, such as investors, too early on in our journey." Coming from an immigrant household, she was raised to value financial stability. This pairing allows them the best of both worlds.
She shared with us that the goal is to keep the company as a small team to keep it a tight circle. This is vital to continue building it their way and to continue the ethos they have built. They are hoping to foster an autonomous environment with no micro-managing, instead having everyone marching to the same goal, having the ability to delegate and ultimately instill that sense of personal ownership with team members buying in.
Having a small team has also permitted Popadelics to be adaptable, as she previously mentioned. "We can challenge our decisions, and we also don't have to get multiple layers of approval for decisions because it is just us. One blessing in disguise I believe is that we didn't go the fundraising route. It would have been so time consuming and strenuous, and instead we focused on producing and growing our company. Had we waited for funding first, I think it would've slowed us down significantly, and we wouldn't be where we are today."
Marilyn said that from the beginning, she had a clear vision for the product: that it should be crunchy and feel and taste like a chip, but also consist of a full mushroom cap. She informed us that many veggie chips actually contain extraneous ingredients. By using a full mushroom cap, is clear that Popadelics are truly made with mushrooms. Surprisingly, when it came to settling on the flavors of Popadelics, they simply came up with their personal favorite global flavors, and it has worked!
We were curious if Marilyn has a favorite memory so far, she exclaimed, "Our first big account was Urban Outfitters, very early on. Not coming from the industry and learning quickly on the job, we realized in that moment that there is something here. Then there was the external validation at our first trade show, the SFA Summer Fancy Food Show in NYC. In retrospect, we were literally a brand new brand and were probably even too new to have done it, but it ended up giving us a ton of validity."