Matthew Mullens, 26, Entrepreneur
At just 26, the N.C. A&T graduate is already a serial entrepreneur with a vegan product sold at grocery stores as far away as Los Angeles and unlimited ideas about what project to pursue next.
Matthew was born in Pontiac, Michigan, but moved all around as a kid, from west to southwest and finally southeast to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta.
It was in a Morehouse pre-freshman program that he was first introduced to the topic of sustainability. He worked on a research project that sent crickets up in weather balloons.
“We had to figure out the best power source to power the instruments. We explored hydro, wind, and we landed on solar. That is how I got exposed to solar,” he says. “I was like, ‘This is sustainability. It makes sense.’”
He soon got involved in a student sustainability organization, leading campus recycling initiatives, and got a summer internship installing solar panels in Hawaii.
Sophomore year he transferred to A&T to study industrial engineering. That’s where a new friend encouraged Matthew to consider a more environmentally-friendly, plant-based diet. Animals raised for meat or dairy consume feed that could otherwise be eaten by humans and release emissions that are of concern for climate change – among other environmental, health and ethical issues. He adopted a vegan diet, eating no animal products.
“It kind of made sense. If I’m going to be for sustainability or work in this field, I should do what I can personally as well to align with what I am doing professionally,” Matthew says.
By his junior year, he was bussing tables but didn’t feel particularly inspired by the job.
“One day I Googled, ‘How to start a business in Greensboro.’ I had no business acumen. I never thought about entrepreneurship before,” Matthew says. That’s how he found the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce’s LaunchLab, an accelerator program of Launch Greensboro that helps entrepreneurs grow and expand businesses.
Matthew was already bubbling with ideas, like creating a school marketplace where parents could sell unwanted items and a portion of the proceeds would pay student lunch fee debt. It was a great idea with a lot of heart, which a school leader he approached quickly punched holes in.
He took advantage of a free, 30-minute session to meet with Launch Greensboro Assistant Director Jenn Hensel at co//ab, a co-working space. He had a restaurant idea.
“I went in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” he says. “I wanted it to be Cook Out, but vegan. She said, ‘Okay cool. How much capital are you working with?’ I said, ‘I’ve got $21, what can I do with this?’”
He started coming to co//ab, where he became an intern while finishing his college degree. With support from the entrepreneur programs, Matthew started doing the leg work to build on the idea. He ended up presenting his concept at a chamber-sponsored pitch session, where the audience gave him good feedback that helped him understand the complex reality of opening a restaurant.
He slowly refined his idea down to a single recipe for a southern-style, baked non-dairy mac and cheese. He joined Kitchen Connects GSO, a food entrepreneurship program that allowed participants to access the shared-use professional kitchen at Out of the Garden and test recipes with patrons of the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market.
Matthew spooned mac and cheese samples at the market to positive reviews. But some folks couldn’t eat his original recipe, because it contained almond milk. Others couldn’t eat wheat noodles. He made a bunch of tweaks, but then ended up with a lot of uneaten product.
“After that, it kind of just started clicking. I am not making the noodles. They can take it home and make whatever they want,” he says. It could be used for nachos, as a baked potato topping, or on pasta. And it had to be nut-, gluten-, and soy-free. He called his sauce Empasta Cheeze Sauce.
Matthew started researching vegan fast food products. He toured all the grocery stores in Greensboro, studying their vegan options, querying stores managers about their sales, and looking for a way to differentiate his business. He found there certainly was a market for quality vegan products that made it easier for people to cook at home – especially comfort foods.
“Vegan doesn’t necessarily mean you had to eat leafy greens all the time. I miss my comfort food. I miss the things I am used to eating. I don’t want to be having a bad day and eat leafy greens to cheer me up,” he says.
Once he figured that out – he started “shooting for the stars” trying to get the product into Deep Roots Market, a downtown co-op, to expand his reach beyond the farmer’s market crowd. He kept dropping by and leaving samples, but didn’t get very far. Then he got a little help from an Empasta fan.
“One day a customer went in a requested it….By the end of the month Empasta was in there,” he says. The customer was Jenn. “That’s how that started. I had the confidence to sell to other brick and mortar locations.”
Matthew – a one-man operation – used the farmer’s market shutdown during the pandemic to launch the e-commerce side of the business. With the help of an $8K PayPal Empowerment Grant for Black Businesses, and research, trail, and error, he found a new glass package option to get Empasta safely to customers around the county. The grant also helped him hire someone to help market the product through social media.
When PayPal featured Matthew and Empasta on its corporate news site in February 2021, the business had its best week of sales ever. And recently Besties Vegan Paradise, a small grocer in Los Angeles, made its first order of Empasta.
Matthew’s working to expand the Empasta empire. Meanwhile, he still has a day job working in procurement and has dabbled in a few other businesses, including consulting on UXUI design and a tech startup. And he’s got dreams of leveraging his business success to help combat food insecurity.
“I caught the bug. When you are hanging around co//ab and you are working with other entrepreneurs and helping them develop their businesses …. things get rolling.”