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Hannah Hong (left), co-founder of Hakuna Brands, receives her $100,000 check from Padma Lakshmi and Jessica Spaulding, senior director of brand marketing at PepsiCo-Frito Lay. (Credit: Getty Images for Stacy's Pita Chips)
Hannah Hong (left), co-founder of Hakuna Brands, receives her $100,000 check from Padma Lakshmi and Jessica Spaulding, senior director of brand marketing at PepsiCo-Frito Lay. (Credit: Getty Images for Stacy’s Pita Chips)

Hannah Hong was having a rough day when she got a call that could change the course of her fledgling business.

The co-founder of Hakuna Brands, a non-dairy line of frozen desserts, found out that her business had been selected as a finalist for the Stacy’s Rise Project, a program launched by Stacy’s Pita Chips to support women-owned food companies.

She was ultimately chosen by a panel that included Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi to take home the grand prize, which came with a giant check for $100,000.

[Related: Why Padma Lakshmi Handed $100,000 to This ‘Delicious’ Plant-Based Dessert Maker]

“It completely turned my day around,” Hong said of the initial call. “I think I’m still living off the high from it.”

Now the win, announced last week, will potentially lift her business up. Started in 2016, Hakuna Brands is known for its Hakuna Banana “(n)ice cream,” which runs for $5.99 at Whole Foods. Hong whips up the specialty product with her best friend, co-founder Mollie Cha. They both previously worked at Bolthouse Farms, a division of Campbell’s Soup Company, and both became lactose-intolerant in their early 20s.

“We knew this was something special,” Hong said of the frozen treat. “I quit my job pretty quickly and went full force into it.”

It took a while of figuring out the perfect recipe to get to a “scoopable” texture that tasted like ice cream, she added.

The Stacy’s Rise Project gave them mentorship support and other resources, and Hong said the program helped her rethink packaging, and also helped her craft a survey so she can take consumers’ feedback into consideration.

The award money will go toward in-store promotions to drive new customers, as well as digital communications like paid ads on social media.

“It’s not like we have a million followers on Instagram,” said Hong. “We want to use some of the money to fund paid media for the first time, to really accelerate that communication and be more discoverable for consumers.”

And, of course, one of the highlights was meeting Lakshmi.

[Related: Melanie Moss: Simple, Nostalgic Desserts Cloaked in Beautiful, Bold Exteriors]

“I was standing really awkwardly in our group photos trying not to touch her because she’s so beautiful,” Hong said, laughing. “But she’s actually very nice and very generous with her time, and really eloquent. I was a little bit starstruck.”

Out of more than 400 applications, the judges whittled the pool down to five finalists. They were all flown in for an awards lunch on Nov. 4, and that’s when Lakshmi made the big announcement.

“It was very Top Chef,” Hong said. “Of course, you hope but don’t expect to win, so I was genuinely very surprised.”

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