Yaribeth Rios is a young entrepreneur and a co-founder (along with her husband Alan) of Isla Pops, a new green company based in Puerto Rico, with a mission to keep kids on a healthy diet while being cooled off and entertained with their all natural fruit pops.
LGB: How did the idea of Isla Pops come to being? What or who inspired you and keeps motivating you?
YR: Isla Pops came about when my family and I relocated to Puerto Rico from Texas few years ago. The idea to start it up was due to a variety of reasons. Where we lived before is a very health conscious city, and being the parents of two young children, we were persistent on making sure that the treats that we gave them were organic, free of anything artificial and funky, and most important, all natural and whole food based. When we moved here, we noticed a lack of those type of snacks and treats geared towards children, especially frozen treats, which was puzzling, seeing as how abundant and fertile the land is here. So we decided that we could help fill that void, as we could see that there are other health conscious parents in Puerto Rico. The other big reason we started Isla Pops was economical. We see such untapped abundance and natural resources that it irked me to see my home island in such an economic slump. The “big picture, pie in the sky” or whatever you like to call it dream of Isla Pops is to use as much local ingredients as possible, re-invest our profit in other, like-minded start-ups, and basically keep a portion of the money IN Puerto Rico, while utilizing the wealth that’s in our soil and fincas (agricultural land). I would love to see more small-scale, family farms growing heirloom crops in a sustainable way as a result of Isla Pop’s growth. I know that our little ice pop company can’t “save the economy of PR”, but if we could get to a point of “success”, it would serve as an inspiration to other small businesses in PR and maybe they would say to themselves: “Hey look at those guys, they keep their money and business practices as local as they could and it seems to work for them. Maybe we should start buying tomatoes grown in San Sesbastian instead of the ones imported from the US or DR”. That whole idea serves as an inspiration to us, as well as our two young boys. I want to be able to tell them one day: “Yeah guys, we started a business and operated it in a responsible and ethical way. You don’t have to lie, cheat or steal to get ahead in life”. Children always do what they see, and not necessarily what they are told.
LGB: What have been the biggest challenges so far in the 2 years “in the works”?
Honestly, the biggest challenge in the beginning was just getting the thing started. Because what we were doing was so out of the norm here, a lot of the governmental agencies did not know how to file our patent and things like that. There was a lot of miscommunication, and at times I felt a lack of communication between local government agencies. Also, waiting for our equipment to arrive here was quite stressful. We had an empty shop for months waiting for all our ducks to be in a row before we could actually start. Also, the hectic juggle of trying to run and grow a business just with my husband and I, on top of raising a family, on top of my husband still working a day job can be VERY stressful at times. But with a lot of patience and persistence, we managed to get through it.
LGB: What was the initial goal of Isla Pops and has it changed since you’ve started?
YR: The initial goal was to make tasty, healthy and fun ice pops, using local ingredients and not too crazy with the sugar content. Basically, we wanted to make something that we would buy and give our own kids. Some things have changed. When we started, we wanted to use 100% local ingredients. Although this was a lofty and idealistic goal, it’s very very difficult to try and create a schedule when you are at the mercy of whether or not the person you are buying your produce from shows up, or brings what they said they would. Also, when we first started, we only wanted to sweeten our pops with sugar cane juice, or guarapo as it’s called here, due to the health benefits and low glycemic factors. That also proved to be a logistical headache. We learned quickly that not all guarapo tastes the same. Depending on whether or not it rained a lot or not, that can affect the sweetness of it. Also, it has a very limited shelf life. Again, the day you planned to produce pops can get ruined rather quickly by these unforeseen factors. We scaled back our initial plan to use 100% local ingredients to more like 75%. We still love and use guarapo, just not on all recipes. We have started to incorporate organic turbinado sugar.
LGB: What is the biggest satisfaction from your work?
YR: We get a lot of satisfaction from the positive feedback we get, whether it is from someone trying out pops at a farmers market, someone in the online world via Facebook or Instagram. Also, the fact that my kids and nephews request our pops is pretty cool too!
LGB:What is your vision for the future of “all natural” foods?
YR: I have seen the “all natural/organic” food market go from kinda a weird hippie thing from the 70’s to becoming mainstream in our present times. This is great news, as traditional row crop farming practices are doing huge damage to the topsoil with the repeating spraying of Round-Up and other chemicals. I see mothers and fathers being more conscious about what is in the food that they give to their families, and with the wealth of information at our fingertips via the web, looking up what high fructose corn syrup is, and the effects of eating highly processed, high in caloric value but low to no nutritional value foods have on our bodies, especially young and developing bodies of our children. I see some of the big boys in the food industry taking notice and are starting to offer alternatives to their established brands. I have noticed a trend where people are starting to buy their produce locally, and participating in their local economy as opposed to sending their money to the big boys. Let me just end with this: the USDA states that every man, woman and child in the US consumes on average $1800 in food and beverages a year. The population of where I live in Aguadilla is roughly 60,000. That is a cash flow of $108 million a year. Now let’s say that of that 60,000 people, only 10% bought locally sourced food and food items that contained locally sourced ingredients. That amounts to $10.8 million. Could you build a local economy with that much cash flow? Of course you could. And it is renewable, as those same people will need to eat next year. You want to rebuild a local economy? It all starts with food production. That is what I ultimately see for the future of all natural, local food.
LGB: I’ll ask a “typical corporate” question, but try to apply it to your scale and personal vision: Where would you like to see Isla Pops in say five years?
YR: I would love to see Isla Pops have air conditioning in our production facility! But seriously, I want to grow to the point where our product is on store shelves, like local supermarkets. Every time someone would buy our product, they would be recycling their money back into the local economy, be supporting local and sustainably grown food, and be giving themselves or their children an all natural and healthy pop whether they are aware of it or not. I would also love to export our product to all the Boricuas on the mainland that want a taste of home. What a boom that would have for local farmers! Maybe we should look into getting a finca just for Isla Pops!
LGB: Do you feel your “product” is still developing to where you want it to be? Or do you feel it’s an endless creative project that will never stop evolving?
YR: We have certain flavors that by now, we know how they should taste and how they need to be made. But we are always striving to create new flavors, new combinations, so in that regard I don’t ever see us stopping that creative part of what we do.
LGB: What’s your message to today’s busy parents?
YR: We live in a very busy and hectic world today, bombarded with information and sensory overload. My advice is to try balance work and family. Make sure that you are feeding your children healthy and all natural food. The time to instill healthy eating habits is when they are young. Their future health depends on what kind of food you feed your kids. If you don’t cook at home, learn how to make a few meals and try to eat together as a family, even if it is only once a week. Take your younglings to a farmers market on the weekends and let them pick out something to use in that night’s dinner. Also, your kids aren’t going to be young forever. The time to make and create joyful memories is now. Even simple things like a walk outside at dusk together and reading a silly story at bedtime are important in the long run.
Thank you for the interview, Yari. We wish you all the best in your endeavors and keep on inspiring others!