When the real estate market started to head south, then-33-year-old Nikki Lewis of White Marsh knew she had to find a new business.
"I’ve always been an entrepreneur," said Lewis, who owned a real estate investment company with her husband Tre for eight years.
"When the market turned we were on the wrong end. We sold our last property and I was looking for a new business to get into," she said.
Lewis knew just where to look: her childhood.
"I have always loved making Rice Krispie treats—I made them with my mom as a kid," she said. "I've been to fancy restaurants and gotten dessert, but when I’m at home I always make Rice Krispie treats."
In June 2009 the down-on-her-luck ex-investor started testing different recipes for marshmallows in her home kitchen. One of her secrets? Beef-based gelatin. Lewis doesn't eat pork, and wanted to find an alternative way to make her marshmallow.
"Making that marshmallow from scratch just tasted so good," Lewis said.
After meeting with food scientists at Ticgums in White Marsh to learn about shelf life, Lewis decided on all-natural ingredients for her treats, which she called "Mallow Munchies," a name that stuck.
Lewis started selling her treats—huge blocks of crisped rice held together by homemade marshmallow either plain, topped with chocolate, caramel, or filled with a variety of "mix-ins" like roasted pumpkin seeds and cranberries—at the Owings Mills farmers market.
"I went there just to get feedback from people and find out if this could be a viable business for me," Lewis said. "The feedback was extremely positive and I just expanded the business from there."
When Lewis says that "she" expanded the business, she means it. The operation is pretty much just one woman, she said. Although she gets a great deal of support from her family, it's Lewis who makes the 500 or 600 treats, each roughly 3 inches by 4 inches by 3 inches in size, each week in a rented commercial kitchen space.
Lewis' 5-year-old son Nigel has a face recognizable to many people in the Baltimore area, since he adorns the wrapper of each tasty treat in stores like Zeke's Coffee in Lauraville, Milk & Honey market in downtown Baltimore, Grilled Cheese & Company in Arbutus and Whole Foods in Harbor East.
"We're approved for Whole Foods throughout the mid-Atlantic region," Lewis said, "but we're only in the Harbor East store right now."
What's the next step for Lewis? She plans to open an as-yet-unnamed cafe in the Ross Village shopping center at the corner of Philadelphia and Rossville Roads.
Currently she's raising funds for the endeavor—which will get her a commercial kitchen space and retail front of her own—using an online site called Kickstarter where individuals can invest in entrepreneurs' ideas.
Her campaign ends on Aug. 22 at 6:49 a.m., and unless she is able to reach her goal of $20,000, Lewis won't receive any of the $3,272 pledged so far—a setback that would keep the cafe from opening in late September. But doesn't foresee terminating her plans.
Once the cafe is open, Lewis plans to hire like-minded individuals who want to start their own businesses one day; she hopes they can learn from working with her.
"A lot of people want to do their own thing but they need employment along the way. So what we’re gonna do—we’re going to teach them what we know about business along the way and encourage them," she said.
After that? Lewis thinks she'd like for her business to be seen as an alternative to the ultra-trendy cupcake bakeries taking off in Maryland and nationwide—she wants to eventually expand the business and become a national chain.
In the meantime, you can get your Mallow Munchies fix at the Towson farmers market on Thursdays, the Canton Crossing farmers market on Fridays, or the Baltimore farmers market on Sundays.
Lewis offered a word of advice to would-be entrepreneurs from a successful self-made business owner starting a new chapter.
"Really, you’ve just got to stick with it. So many people have told me no. I’ve had so many failures along the way; had the product in stores where it didn’t sell. In the beginning it was different—we had to listen to the customers," Lewis said.
"There will be a lot of failures along the way, you’ve got to keep getting up and keep moving toward the goal."