Monday, September 9, 2002
As success stories go, this one's a Lulu
Food- Dessert maker looks to expand her product line to increase profit.
September 9, 2002
The Orange County Register
By HOLLY WRAY
Maria Sobrino has taken her work home again. It's in a cardboard box stamped "Lulu's Dessert'' on the kitchen counter in her home in Irvine. Family members are visiting from Mexico, and she wants them to be the first to taste her newest product.
Her daughter Monica, 15, helps open up the box. Her brother-in-law Luciano Kubli brings out the plastic spoons as Maria's nephew, Luciano Kubli Sobrino, tries to guess what it is.
"Dulce de leche?''
The family is stumped, even after Monica passes out the individual cups of orange-colored gelatin and they all get their first taste.
Monica guesses correctly first. "Soya.'' Soybean.
The day before, Sobrino had signed a contract with the Indiana Soybean Board to make soy-based gelatin. Sobrino says the future of her company, Lulu's Dessert, is in healthier snacks and desserts. Soy gelatin products will be on the market by October, Sobrino said.
Maria "Lulu'' de Lourdes Sobrino is the sole owner of the Vernon-based business, which she started in 1982 with her personal savings. She started making gelatin with her mother's recipe, and Lulu's now produces more than 60 million cups of Mexican-style gelatin a year.
Her product line is centered on individual cups of ready-to-eat gelatin--something Jell-O, owned by food giant Kraft, didn't produce until the early '90s.
"The hardest part was to educate the consumer,'' Sobrino said. "People liked it because it is very convenient, has a reasonable price, many flavors and a long shelf life.''
Today, Lulu's Dessert products can be found in the refrigerated section of most major supermarkets.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
Sobrino, 50, was born and raised in Mexico City. She started several businesses in Mexico before coming to the United States in the early 1980s after a decrease in the value of the peso sunk her businesses.
"When I came to the United States, I didn't know anybody,'' Sobrino said. "It took many years to understand the way to do business in the United States.''
Lulu's moved to Vernon two years ago from its longtime location in Huntington Beach. Sobrino said she wanted to keep her business in Orange County but found the building to suit her needs in Vernon.
The 64,000-square-foot Vernon facility -- about four times the size of the Huntington Beach plant -- houses all manufacturing, warehouse, marketing and sales functions, as well as research and development.
Lulu's will introduce three new products in the coming weeks: premium-baked flan, rice pudding and Gel-icious, a more shelf-stable gelatin. Lulu's distributes about 45 dessert products, which are available in 14 of the 24 largest supermarket companies in the country.
Fiesta Mexicana Market in Anaheim stocks Lulu's products, which owner Benjamin Bequer says sells well among his customers, more than 60 percent of whom are Hispanic. Bequer believes the new Lulu's products, such as flan, will sell as well as the gelatin does. "They're traditional Hispanic desserts, and they're items customers are looking for,'' Bequer said.
THE COMPANY IS A FAMILY
Just as Sobrino takes her work home, she also takes her home to work. Sobrino says she feels like her company is a family, and she strives to increase profit so she can provide better benefits for her employees.
"It took me a lot to separate myself from (the employees) and start hiring managers,'' Sobrino said. Sobrino still knows more than half of her 100 workers by name. The company is like a big family, said production manager Rigoberto Aldana, who has been working for Sobrino for 15 years.
"There's a lot of us who have been here for a long time,'' Aldana said. "(Sobrino) is very concerned about people's welfare and their well-being. I admire her, and she has trust in me.''
Sobrino's Hispanic heritage also is a large part of her business. Eating gelatin is a Mexican party tradition -- in Mexico, gelatin accompanies birthday cake -- and Sobrino's work force is about 90 percent Hispanic.
RECOGNITION IN THE BUSINESS COMMUNITY
Sobrino is an advocate of business owners helping one another, which is why she is helping organize The California-Mexico Summit of Women in Business, a conference in Garden Grove in January to bring together about 500 female entrepreneurs.
"We have to start thinking that the United States and Mexico can be in business together without barriers,'' Sobrino said.
Sobrino has received dozens of awards. In April, she was given the Estrella Award for International Business from the Orange County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
"There was no way we could have overlooked her,'' said Frank Guzman, incoming chairman of the chamber. "It's rare to see a woman out there creating all that activity.''
Sobrino's sister, Alicia Sobrino Franco de Kubli, 41, said Sobrino's family thinks her recognition in the business community is well-deserved.
"Orgulloso,'' Sobrino's mother said. "Muy orgulloso.''
Sobrino smiled. "They are very proud.''
Contact Wray at (714) 796-2310 or firstname.lastname@example.org