July 9, 2017
Recently, we announced our June finalists. Now we’re thrilled to introduce you to 1 of our 2 June Qualification Grant winners, Joy Leeper, Owner of Mama Joy Foods.
Read on to learn about her business, her advice for other female entrepreneurs, and more…
WN: How did Mama Joy Foods come about?
JL: In 2012, our oldest daughter (who was 10 at the time) was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. After 2 years of being on immune suppressing medication and months of high dose steroids, we were seeing no improvement to her health. In 2014, her pediatric gastroenterologist started talking about putting her on a new medication and possibly doing surgery. As her parents, we were not comfortable with either of these options. We started researching alternatives to medication and learned of a certain diet for people like our daughter.
After one year of our daughter being on this diet, we took her in for her annual checkup with her pediatric gastroenterologist. A series of blood tests is always mandatory after her appointments and when we received her test results, we were very happy! They were the best results (meaning all of her tests were within “normal” range) we have had since before her diagnosis. At that moment, we knew that this diet was a forever diet for her.
Making her foods required a lot of time and energy. It was preventing me from spending quality time with my family while working full time. So, in 2015, I quit my corporate job to stay home with our son. This also allowed me the time necessary to make her all the foods she enjoyed and to try new recipes for her!
A few months into my new life as a stay-at-home mom, I thought about the struggles I went through while working full time. It was almost impossible to find ready-made, natural food for her to enjoy. My family encouraged me to start my own business so that other families can have yummy foods to help support their diets. All of my foods are Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free and Grain-Free. Most of my foods are also Paleo and Vegan Friendly.
WN: What type of response have you received from consumers?
JL: Going through the process of starting my business has been very rewarding. I performed market testing at a few farmer’s markets and the response was overwhelmingly positive! I sold out at almost every market! My favorite story is from a family with three young children. I saw them looking over all my food and whispering to each other. They came up to me with HUGE smiles on their faces. They had decided to buy a package of pumpkin bars. The kids informed me they all had a dairy allergy and were so excited to see something they could eat at the farmer’s market. It brought tears to my eyes! Even people who do not have any food sensitivities have loved my foods. They love that I use very few ingredients and those ingredients are natural. My slogan is “Taste how good being healthy can be!”
WN: What type of interest have you received from grocery stores and restaurants?
JL: At one of my first farmer’s markets, I was approached by the owner of a local bakery/coffee shop. She had heard about my company from other people around the market and learned that all of my foods are Gluten-Free. Since local bakeries and grocery stores do not have the capability of making baked goods that are Gluten-Free, my foods appeal to these stores, as they still need these options for their customers. Since then, I have worked to get nutritional content and sales sheets ready so I can pitch my foods around the Eastern Iowa area. I will be hitting the pavement the middle of July. I will pitch Mama Joy Foods to the stores where I think customers will want to purchase my baked goods.
WN: What are your long-term goals with Mama Joy Foods?
JL: My goal is to be in twelve grocery stores, coffee shops and restaurants by the end of 2017. I am starting with two of my best-selling cookies: our Sweet as Sugar Cookies and our Chocolate Chip Cookies. If I reach my goal, I will look to open my own commercial kitchen so I can start expanding and selling more of my products.
WN: Where can people purchase your products?
JL: Currently, I sell my foods online at Mama Joy Foods.
Soon, I hope customers will be able to find my foods at New Pioneer Co-op, Natural Grocers, in the Hy-Vee Health food section, and at local coffee shops and restaurants in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City areas. In a few years, my dream is to be in Whole Foods Markets.
WN: What advice would you give to other female entrepreneurs?
JL: I suppose most people would say, never give up on your dream if you truly believe in your product. What I would say is, starting your own business is really hard work, but totally worth it. I understand why people say their business is “their baby.” Having children is hard work, but the amount of pride you feel when they succeed is amazing! The same is true for your business. Watching people taste your food and smile when they try it for the first time, makes my heart soar! I still get teary eyed when children with food sensitivities are so grateful for my food. I also love learning new things. So, starting my business really satisfied my intellectual curiosity. There was a point though, where I had no idea what I needed to do next. Partnering with the Small Business Development Center was one of the smartest things I have done for my business. I truly cannot say enough about the staff there! They have been so supportive of Mama Joy Foods and have really helped me believe in myself as a business owner.
WN: Do you have anything else you’d like to share about Mama Joy Foods?
JL: Our daughter getting Crohn’s Disease was one of the worst and best experiences for our family. It is something she will always have and is something she has to think about on a daily basis. There are moments when she asks, “Why me mom?” It is in those moments when I am reminded of everything we have learned and how we have changed (for the better) as a family. It was through our struggles that we have learned the power of food, how to have the strength to do what is right for our family, and how to start a business to help others in similar circumstances. If I could take away her Crohn’s Disease, I would, but I am proud that we turned our struggles into delicious cookies!