rustrated by limited options at the grocery store and spending more and more time in her kitchen, Bella Lam had her epiphany over a bowl of pancake batter.
If she wanted vegan, gluten-free baking mixes, surely others would too.
"It was something I couldn't find, so I made the solution myself," Lam said.
Four years later, Coconut Whisk has pancake, waffle and cookie mixes in dozens of retailers and has its own brick-and-mortar location in downtown Minneapolis.
The brand has resonated widely amid the rise in plant-based eating and continued interest in gluten-free food. Coconut Whisk succeeded because "I followed my curiosity," Lam said.
"The biggest win was just getting started in the first place — if I didn't act right away it could have fizzled out," she said. "It continued to blossom because I was willing to learn, be coached and put in the hard work."
Lam's family immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam when she was 6; her family's experience informed her work ethic.
"I wanted to go to college and get a steady job and support my family and not consistently worry about money," said Lam, now 27. "So it's weird I'm in entrepreneurship now, where I'm constantly worried about money."
Lam founded Coconut Whisk in 2018 with her boyfriend, Myles Olson, while still attending Minnesota State University, Mankato. Early success at farmers markets led to retail placement at Hy-Vee stores and local co-ops. A trial run at Twin Cities Target stores quickly sold out this spring.
The rapid rise came with a few hard-earned entrepreneurial lessons for Lam, who graduated with a health degree. Missing out on a business fellowship was devastating.
"That was one of the first big 'no's' I received, and I took it personally and was upset with myself about that," she said. "It's OK to feel those feelings. You're building what you want to create and doing things for the people who want the solutions you're providing."
Food is the "love language" of her family and continues to fuel her passion for Coconut Whisk. The brand is working on a subscription model and has ready-to-eat and frozen offerings in the works.
Looking back now, however, Lam sees what a difficult business food can be.
"There is a lack of capital and support in Minnesota, so we're losing a lot of businesses once they hit a certain threshold," she said. "As an ecosystem, we need to do better."