Food

The Popcorn Alchemists of the South Side

The family behind Herby PoP

Jason Schumer

Mellini Monique was listening to a sermon when the minister said, “Hey, whatever you have, whatever is in your bag, God has given you to reach people.” At that point, Monique had to ask herself: what was in her bag? What did she have to offer? Popcorn.

This sermon was the final push to motivate Monique and her family to open up Herby PoP in 2009 and offer their popcorn to people. Herby PoP is a family-run, primarily online company based out of South Shore that sells popcorn seasoned with a variety of herbs from around the world.

Before Herby PoP, Monique’s family worked as medical missionaries. They traveled to provide healthcare and teach workshops related to their practice.

“It’s like being a nurse on steroids,” she said, laughing. “You attend to a person, you meet them right where you are.” Instead of recommending surgery, antibiotics, or a hospital visit, Monique and other medical missionaries use natural treatments such as diet changes.

Around ten years ago, Monique was working with a client with diabetes who loved to snack on junk food. Monique decided to replace her client’s unhealthy snacks with her own popcorn creation, a gluten-free and whole-grain snack.  “I just added some extra love to it with some herbs,” Monique said. “She loved it. Other people loved it.”

By 2009, Monique’s popcorn was already a beloved commodity, and Monique and her husband, Brodie Cross Jr., decided to start Herby PoP. Their first flavor, the flavor that made Herby PoP popular before the business even started, was Original Onion and Dill. But Monique wanted to expand Herby PoP into a business with an international flair. “I dared to get more flavorful, if you will,” she said. Because of her work as a medical missionary, Monique and her family had traveled extensively and tried various cuisines. “What if I try to infuse the popcorn with different flavors from around the globe?” Monique recalls asking herself. “Use the popcorn as my blank canvas and just get creative with it.”

So Herby PoP opened up with seven additional flavors like Sweet Vanilla Crunch and Masala Munch, a personal favorite inspired by the masala sticks Monique snacked on when she worked in Kenya.

Monique and her family create all of the popcorn themselves, from the first steps of experimenting with flavors to packaging the final product. Most of the work is done in a licensed kitchen in South Shore, where Monique works in tandem with Tsadakeeya Emmanuel of Majani Catering. “I like to think myself as this popcorn alchemist or this popcorn artist while I’m in my popcorn studio,” Monique said. To come up with new flavors, Monique goes to restaurants to try different cuisines and actually taste the different spices being used. She asks herself, “How can I translate this to popcorn?”

Herby PoP is by every definition of the term a family-run business. Brodie created the website and manages the business with Monique. Monique and Brodie have five children, and each one, from the sixteen-year-old to the toddler, not even two years old, contributes in one way or another toward Herby PoP. The family is part of what Monique refers to as her “quality-control team,” providing the final judgment on a new flavor. The children also nearly always attend the pop-up events that Herby PoP hosts around Chicago.

“Let me tell you something, even down to the sixteen-year-old, the eleven-year-old, really all of them except for the baby are so good live. Like you would think that they would cower back, and be like, ‘Mom, Dad, handle that,’” Monique said. “But they will make sales, explain the flavors, cash somebody out.”

Monique and Brodie’s children have spent most of their lives in Herby PoP’s entrepreneurial environment. Because the children are homeschooled, they have more flexibility to get involved with the business and travel with their parents, who continue to lead seminars and lectures as medical missionaries. Ezekiel, who is eleven years old, has taken what he has learned through working at Herby PoP one-step further by opening up his own company called Ecozeke, an online business that sells all-natural nontoxic household cleansers.

“I’m with my children twenty-four hours, seven days a week typically,” Monique said. “So when you say work-life balance, I say what really does that mean? We’re always working, we’re always living together.” The idea of home being your office has its benefits and its drawbacks. Monique and Brodie both acknowledged that in some cases it can certainly be a test of patience to work with family members. Unlike coworkers, Monique explained, if a family member has a working style that does not complement hers, she does not have the option to “throw them in the garbage can.” Rather, the whole family has to learn to work with each other and improve each other’s efficiency as a team. “If you can work with your family and have patience with your family, you can probably work with anyone,” Monique said.

For the children, Herby PoP has been as much of a part of their education as any math or English class may have been. When asked about how Herby PoP affected them—I spoke to Ezekiel, Hadassah, Mahalyah, and Issachar on the phone—they were shy to answer. It’s a hard question to respond to. Most of the children have grown up with Herby PoP, and its business is simply part of their daily lives.

While Herby PoP is currently small and family-run—a characteristic the family certainly plans on preserving—Herby PoP aspires to expand internationally. Currently, it operates for the most part online, with occasional private events, stands at festivals, and pop-up events at restaurants and stores around Chicago and especially on the South Side, such as Robust in Woodlawn and the Whole Foods in Englewood. However, Monique and Brodie hope to expand Herby PoP by building their market outside of Chicago, eventually creating a flagship store on the South Side.

“I’ve been born and raised on the South Side,” Monique said. “I’m so sick and tired of having to travel north to get something different.”

Although Herby PoP is certainly changing, the family hopes to preserve its roots below Roosevelt. Having grown up with Herby PoP in some of the integral years of his life, sixteen-year-old Malachi, the oldest of the five kids, understands the core beliefs that drive Herby PoP and his family perhaps better than anyone.

“It’s created with lots of love,” he said. “My family has been developing the business as a whole for a while, so do me a favor and let’s make Herby PoP into a national sensation.”

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