MARIA DE LOURDES SOBRINO LACKED MANY THINGS THAT MOST people need to start a business. She didn't have a lot of money, resources or knowledge about her industry.
Sobrino didn't even have much understanding from her family in Mexico City, who couldn't believe she would choose not to be part of her family's legal dynasty, but instead wanted to start her own business. But she had a strong entrepreneurial spirit, which she still uses to grow her business and to encourage potential business owners today.
About 20 years ago, Sobrino was running a travel business that she had started in Mexico. Its original focus was on organizing conventions and events for businesses between the United States and Mexico. Later expanding into a travel agency, she opened an office in Los Angeles. But the devaluation of the peso against the U.S. dollar at that time forced her to close the business.
That didn't discourage Sobrino, however, and her entrepreneurial spirit grew even stronger with a new idea.
She realized there was no one in the United States at the time that manufactured gelatin desserts, which were popular in her native Mexico. She wanted to turn that idea into a business, but she was new to the United States and unfamiliar with American business practices. "It's hard when you come from another country and don't know anybody," Sobrino says.
She didn't have much capital or knowledge in food production, but she was determined to make it happen. She went ahead and asked around on her own, doing market research to see what direction to take the company, which would eventually become Lulu's Dessert Corp.
In 1982, Sobrino, whose nickname is Lulu, opened a 700 square-foot retail store in Torrance, Calif., making the gelatin desserts by hand, using her mother's recipe.
She started selling the product to mom-and-pop shop owners, many of whom had to be educated about the gelatin products, which she says are reasonably priced, healthy and tasty. "It's appropriate for a mom to buy for the family," she insists.
After doing business this way for a year, Sobrino brought in food brokers who helped advance her business and increase the number of gelatin cups produced. She also began improving her gelatin formulas with chemists and food processors in 1983. It took five years to attain the quality and long shelf life - around 120 days - which the company is known for today.
In 1985, the company moved from its original location to a 3,000-square-foot industrial building in Gardena, Calif. Then in the late 1980s, Sobrino obtained an SBA loan, which allowed the business to expand into a 15,000-square-foot location in Orange County, Calif.
But the company eventually outgrew that site, and moved again in 2000 to a new factory of almost 70,000 square feet in Vernon, Calif. "What this facility has given us is the ability to introduce new products," Sobrino says.
The company had already developed many flavors of gelatins, including the dulce de leche, creamy vanilla with cinnamon and rompope. But it now hopes to expand its selection of baked flan, a more upscale item that could have potential with restaurant and commissary customers. It also is currently introducing its new Fruit Barrels™ products at Costco, and it has some others coming out in late 2002, including rice puddings and the vanilla, chocolate and tapioca pudding flavors.
There are other changes at the company, too. Sobrino has taken on a new role at Lulu's by bringing in a new president to run the day-to-day operations. Gene Huapaya, who brings a lot of management experience in the food industry, was hired earlier this year, freeing up some of Sobrino's time.
Sobrino's story and successes haven't gone unnoticed. She has been recognized by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, U.S. Small Business Administration, National Foundation of Women Legislators and the Latin Business Association, among others. The company also won the "Best in Show" award in new product introduction during the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association expo in 2001, when its Premium Baked Flan™ captured the prize.
ROUSSELOT GELATIN ROUSSELOT GELATIN HAS SUPPLIED LULU'S DESSERTS FOR THE 20 YEARS. MARIA SOBRINO HAS BEEN COOKING UP HER READY-TO-EAT SNACKS WHILE THE CORPORATE NAME HAS UNDERGONE A NUMBER OF CHANGES DUE TO ACQUISITIONS. THE TRADEMARKED BAGS, BEARING THE PROUD ROUSSELOT GELATIN LOGO, HAVE ALWAYS BEEN IN HER PLANT. THE PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN LULU'S AND ROUSSELOT GOES FAR BEYOND JUST THE SALE OF AN INGREDIENT TO AN END USER. ROUSSELOT HAS ALWAYS BEEN READY TO ASSIST LULU'S WITH IDEAS AND SOLUTIONS IN THE MANUFACTURING PROCESS.