Erin Meagher, a willowy blond with a beachy tomboy vibe, rarely stops to reflect on all she has done.
In merely four years, the 30-year-old former high school teacher's organic, fair-trade coconut oil company, Kelapo, has gone from an idea to a powerhouse.
Her products are in 6,000 stores in the United States and Canada. She has gone from knocking on doors of local independent grocers, with homemade coconut oil brownies and a case of Kelapo, sweetly pleading with them to buy some products, to a presence in the aisles of major retailers: Whole Foods, the Fresh Market, Meijer in the Midwest, H-E-B in Texas, King Soopers out of Colorado.
This month, Kelapo debuts in Publix GreenWise Market Stores.
She is thankful, excited — and working harder than ever.
"A symptom of ambition is dissatisfaction," she said. "I constantly want more."
The next target, she said, is Target.
It started with her students.
After graduating from East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs and North Carolina State University, Meagher got a job as a business teacher at Osceola High School in Largo. She taught several subjects: accounting, public speaking and entrepreneurship.
The students asked why she didn't start her own business.
"Do it," they told her.
But do what exactly? Meagher didn't feel pulled toward any specific product or business. Then she read a story published in 2008 in the Tampa Bay Times about Dr. Mary Newport, a Spring Hill neonatologist who used coconut oil in an effort to try to slow the progression of her husband's Alzheimer's disease. Newport reported significant improvements.
Meagher lived a healthy, active lifestyle and was curious.
"A food product so good that you are actually seeing a benefit when you eat it?" she thought. "What else can it do?"
She researched and was stunned. Though the benefits of coconut oil are debated among experts, proponents of it are passionate. Extra-virgin coconut oil — meaning it is in a natural state, not mixed with other potentially unhealthy substances — has been touted to increase metabolism, provide energy and help with weight loss. Coconut oil contains lauric acid, which is also found in breast milk. Some experts say coconut oil boosts brain function, immune systems, helps regulate sugar levels and lowers cholesterol. When used topically, it's said to treat bug bites, scrapes and acne. People use it as a body lotion, face moisturizer and as a hair serum. Pregnant women use it to ward off stretch marks.
"It blew my mind," she said.
She wondered why she wasn't hearing more about it and saw a business opportunity. Meagher decided to go for it: She had no kids, no mortgage. She could always go back to teaching.
"I can't lose anything by trying this right now," she told herself.
She quit her job, borrowed money and spent eight months researching from the home she shared with her boyfriend on Harbour Island in Tampa. She scoured trade data, learning who imported and produced coconut-related products. She tested coconut oil on herself, wearing it, tasting it straight from the jar, stirring it into her oatmeal, spreading it on crackers. She wanted her oil to be the highest grade possible, organic and fair trade, meaning the workers producing the products are treated well and compensated fairly. She discovered a company called Serendipol, which was founded in 2005 by Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps and worked with coconut farmers in Sri Lanka. Meagher hopped on a plane to California to meet some of the employees at a convention. She loved their company and the high-quality, food-grade oil they produced for her.
She had found her product.
Next she had to figure out how to get it to the United States. She wanted to have it packaged in Florida, but needed an organic facility to keep her certification. She found one in California. Then she had to figure out jars, labels. A brand design. And the name, which she struggled with before settling on Kelapo, a loose translation of "coconut tree" in the Malay language.
By October 2010, she was on a flight to Boston to make her debut at the Natural Products Expo East, jars of Kelapo products in her checked baggage. She brought her sister and a friend to help. The night before the convention, she cried.
"Is this going to work?" she worried.
She got there the next morning, her booth set up, a caterer making fancy grilled cheese sandwiches with coconut oil.
She got a huge account that first day — TJX Companies, the owners of T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods. They wanted Meagher's products in their stores in the United States and Canada.
She returned to Tampa victorious. But it turned out she had to go back to square one.
• • •
No other large retailers came calling. The T.J. Maxx account and Internet sales kept the company afloat while Meagher knocked on doors of stores.
"We're local," she would say.
She was persistent, wooing with chocolate pumpkin bread and pound cake. One by one, she persuaded stores to buy her products: Chuck's Natural Food Marketplace, Village Health Market, Rollin' Oats, Nutrition S'Mart, Abby's Health & Nutrition, Richard's Foodporium. She added products in addition to various sizes of jars — baking sticks, travel packs, vegetarian soft gels, soy-free cooking spray.
She said yes to all public speaking engagements, at culinary schools, on the radio, anywhere she could talk about coconut oil. She wants her business to succeed, but she also believes her role is to teach people about the oil's benefits and to get them using it, wherever they buy it.
Bit by bit, the business grew, along with the coconut industry itself. Meagher got into the business at the cusp of a craze that does not yet appear to be slowing. From 2010 to 2011, the price of raw oil doubled, Meagher said. Coconut oil has been growing at more than 70 percent annually, according to SPINS, a data information provider of natural, organic and specialty products.
Last year, Meagher met a representative with KeHE, a national distributor, at a convention. Her persistence with that rep led to a meeting with Maria Reyes, a KeHE director. Reyes liked Meagher's story, product, presence and the fact that she is a female business owner. Reyes signed her on, and asked for KeHE to be Kelapo's exclusive distributor for a year.
"We love her," Reyes said of Meagher.
That relationship led to Meagher signing with a national broker, Acosta Sales & Marketing.
Meagher crisscrossed the country going to meetings with large retail companies, still armed, as always, with a plate of baked goods. In November, Meijer said yes. Then they all did.
"Everyone was saying yes," she said. "We couldn't believe it."
• • •
This is where Meagher is now, traveling a lot, speaking a lot, working six days a week. She expects to have $3 million in sales this year, a more than 200 percent increase from 2012.
She and her boyfriend just moved into a South Tampa home. They have two dogs. She tries to live a busy but balanced life.
"I'm not superwoman," Meagher said. "I don't have something that everyone else doesn't have. I need sleep."
She has a half-dozen employees and an office near the airport. One day, she hopes to have the packaging facility in Tampa, along with a store, creating a place where people could come for tours and samples. She envisions publishing a cookbook, even though she often finds herself not being able to eat dinner until 10:30 at night, after working and exercising.
"It's hard. It is so hard," she said of building a business. "And it is such a long process."
She worries about money. Meagher, a sports fan, tells herself if she gets to where she feels like she's successful enough, she'll buy herself season tickets to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
"I'm still building the business," she said. "I don't have money to spend or save yet."
She hopes her products do well enough in the Publix GreenWise stores that they will also be sold at regular Publix stores. From there, her goal is Target, and onward.
Times researchers John Martin and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3405.