Young Entrepreneur Creates 'Coco-Yums' Healthy Snack Company
At just 9 years old, Sammy Lopata is launching his own business - and is filing the official paperwork to prove it. His company produces healthy snacks called "Coco-Yums" and is on the fast track to rival competing brands in the market.
Having lived in Newtown until a recent move to Bethel this past March, Sammy's father Larry Lopata says they have plans to move back to Newtown and that, "We're still Newtownians."
Sammy's journey becoming a young entrepreneur all started at his home school co-op, called Pathways.
"There was this entrepreneurial class, and my teacher told us to go home and come back with at least one product you want to sell at Marketplace," he explained.
Marketplace, an interactive school event where students create food or items to sell to their peers, replicates commerce at a real market.
Leading up to the big day, Sammy and his father brainstormed different possible products he could make and sell, all the while knowing they wanted to create a healthy and delicious snack product.
"He's always very conscious about what he eats," Mr Lopata said about his son. "He doesn't like the effect processed sugar has on him, so he thought there has to be a better way."
It was around that time when a family friend, George Fraise, whose wife Catherine is executive director of Workspace Education in Bethel that they frequent, gave Sammy some life-changing inspiration.
"He gave us this recipe book about coconuts that his sister wrote," Sammy said, "and we realized we really like coconut."
Using organic coconut pieces as the base for his product, Sammy and his father began making different recipes to find the right ingredients to complement the flavor.
Since Sammy enjoys chocolate, he decided to cover the coconut with dark chocolate, which is a healthy alternative to milk and white chocolate and known to be rich in antioxidants. The chocolate is even locally sourced from Noteworthy in Bethel.
With just those two ingredients, and a bit of salt, that combination became Sammy's personal favorite known as Baked Chocolate-Coated Coconut Chips.
His second product took a bit more time to develop and came to him while eating breakfast - proving breakfast is indeed one of the most important meals of the day.
Sammy's father had made his family pancakes and Sammy began to wonder what it would taste like to combine maple syrup and coconut.
It turned out to be a hit, and along with adding some salt and deciding to use organic maple syrup from Vermont, those simple ingredients formed the Baked Maple-Coated Coconut Chips.
With two products created, Sammy decided to call his company Coco-Yums, a name he came up with from shortening his main ingredient - coconut - to "Coco" and infusing it with what he thinks they are: yummy.
Even after Sammy formulated two healthy snacks that both he and his parents thought were delicious, he was still a little nervous to sell them at Marketplace.
He was not sure how much product to make for the big day, so he decided to do preorders from his peers and teachers to get a count of how many bags to make.
So Sammy, along with his good friend, Nick, who wanted to support him, walked around during their lunchtime collecting everyone's orders.
Seeing so much instant interest, Mr Lopata said, "People thought it was going to be a big success. Everyone in the co-op said they wanted one or two preorders."
That initial preorder totaled 50 bags, all of which Sammy had to make, fill, and have ready for delivery in a week's time.
Coco-Yums became the best-selling product at Marketplace and left many craving more.
Mr Lopata said that even though Sammy has only actively sold Coco-Yums preorders twice, he has already sold more than 300 bags to date, and people still asking if they can buy more.
Sammy has bigger dreams than just making delicious healthy snacks. He wants to create a brand that can grow and thrive.
After developing the Coco-Yums recipe and company name, he focused his talents on marketing, first by making a logo.
According to Sammy, his first draft only took him "five minutes" and features great attention to detail. In his logo the letter O's are drawn look like coconuts, the Y appears as a flourishing coconut tree.
That first incarnation later became the professionally created logo that his mother's friend made for him that now appears as an official label on all Coco-Yums product bags.
Sammy did not stop there; he decided to have mascots for Coco-Yums, too.
After he saw one of his peers, Elaina, was sad having difficulty selling some of her products at Marketplace he wanted to help make her happy.
She had created an assortment of plush, toy balls with googly eyes on them, only to find no one was purchasing the brown ones.
"We bought all off them," Sammy said. "They look like coconuts."
Sammy also has a website for Coco-Yums, as well as a Facebook and Instagram account to market his brand.
Finding A Kitchen
Those eagerly looking to purchase Coco-Yums right now will have to wait until mid-August to do so, as Mr Lopata says that will be when Sammy can officially start selling his products as a business.
After Marketplace, Sammy visited local businesses to speak with owners about promoting his products in their stores. Even though there was a lot of support for his healthy snack foods, he was told he would need to get the proper packaging and paperwork filed to legitimize his company as an official business.
Motivated to get his company off the ground and into the shelves of businesses where customers can see his products, Sammy went to the Bethel Town Hall and received his sole proprietor business certificate.
He even met Bethel First Selectman Matt Knickerbocker, and took photos with him holding the Coco-Yums mascots.
In his spare time, Sammy has also been researching the process of obtaining raw materials and bulk buying, which will help him mass produce Coco-Yums.
He is eager to see his business grow, but wants to do everything the proper way. That is why Sammy no longer makes his Coco-Yums products in his house, but instead reached out a few months ago to Chef Loree Ogan who owns Loree's Kitchen & Catering in Bethel, to use her kitchen.
"Sammy has a good head for business, even at his young age," Ms Ogan said. "He has been prompt at getting all the paperwork together for his startup - and all in a timely manner!"
She added, "He is eager to learn and has the drive to make the coco chips business a success. I'm happy to allow him to prep in our kitchen and help in any way I can."
Ms Ogan has not only helped Sammy with a spot to create his products, but has also given him business advice to help Coco-Yums thrive.
"She was actually the one that told us we should add the nutrition facts and the label," Sammy said.
Currently, Sammy is working on creating a formal write-up of the ingredients and nutritional facts to include on the back of every Coco-Yums bag.
How To Succeed In Business
Being a young entrepreneur is not the only way Sammy chooses to spend his time.
Mr Lopata said that in addition to Sammy working hard at school and now attending summer camps, "He does a lot. He's part of the Newtown Police Explorers, he's a junior black belt at Steve Demasco's [Shaolin] Studios, and he volunteers to help the young kids."
He says he always wants to support what Sammy's interests are and no matter how young Sammy may be, when he sets his mind on a task he accomplishes it.
When Sammy was just 3½ years old he went to a karate birthday party and decided he wanted to be a junior black belt.
"I focused on kung fu for a really long time and got to junior black belt," Sammy said. "Then I moved to a business, and now I'm working to get to my goal with my business."
The Future Of Coco-Yums
Sammy's healthy snack company may be in the beginning stages, but he has big dreams of turning it into a huge success.
He hopes to one day be able to be on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Rachael Ray Show to get the word out about his company.
Sammy also has plans to release videos for Coco-Yums, including a funny version for children and a serious one for adults. He has already polished his video skills by submitting three videos to Instagram for Oreos' new flavor creating challenge.
"I did a coconut and chocolate [flavor], and I pretended to be a mad scientist," said Sammy.
He hopes one of his video ideas will be chosen, and that he can use the half-a-million-dollar winnings to put toward growing Coco-Yums.
When speaking about the many hats that Sammy wears - running the behind the scenes of the company, creating the product, and now being an on-camera personality - Mr Lopata says, "He's just having a good time."
"I've always envisioned [Coco-Yums] as a big Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with a bunch of people working there and they are always happy," Sammy said smiling.
"And instead of getting paid, they can get free Coco-Yums."
Sammy also hopes his company becomes successful enough to where others can come to him for advice, because he wants to be able to give back to the community.
"People have helped me, and I just want to help other people. I imagine myself behind a desk and people will [explain] their ideas, and I'll say, 'That's a very good idea, I think you can add this or do this better,'" Sammy explained.
His advice right now for children his age looking to start their own business?
Sammy said, "If something goes wrong, never give up. Just keep going. Take breaks if necessary. Always be curious. And if you have a problem look for any other way out of that problem."