LANSING, Mich. — Steve Manning lost his job when the pandemic hit.
He and his fiance, Shantaye Guy, had just had a baby boy, Steve Jr., and “the pressure was definitely on,” said Manning. “I knew I had to do something to continue providing for my son.”
That something turned out to be Koala’s Pantry, an organic baby food company the couple started in their kitchen.
When Steve Jr. started eating solid foods, their doctor warned the parents to be mindful of which products they fed him.
Guy began researching baby food brands and what she found surprised her.
“We were finding that there were things people wouldn’t even expect to be in baby food,” she said.
Guy says she read about the use of toxic heavy metals like lead, cadmium and mercury in some of the popular baby food brands.
A congressional investigation released last week confirmed those findings. And, according to the report even the lowest level of exposure to these metals can severely damage a child's brain development.
The concerned parents reached out to Manning’s mother for advice on what to feed Steve Jr. She told them that, when Manning was a baby, she had prepared his food by hand using the fruits and vegetables she grew in her garden.
“That was when we said, ‘If my mom did it, then so can we,” said Manning.
Guy and Manning started making handmade smoothies for Steve Jr. They used organic ingredients like fresh fruits, honey and chia seeds.
Steve Jr. couldn’t get enough of the smoothies, so Guy and Manning decided to share the smoothie mix with friends who also had small children. Both the kids and the parents wanted more.
“The support from our friends and families is what made us make that big leap,” said Guy.
Manning had been collecting unemployment checks since being laid off. He and Guy decided to use the money to buy more blenders and smoothie packaging materials.
With the help of Manning’s daughter, Akira, the small startup was named Koala’s Pantry.
By summer, it caught the attention of Jerry Norris, who founded The Fledge, a Lansing community center that doubles as an entrepreneurial think tank.
Guy says Norris helped her and Manning see that organic baby food was “an untapped market” that they could harness. In July, Norris helped the parents create a business plan for Koala’s Pantry.
The hard work paid off.
They recently struck a deal with grocery chain Meijer and will have Koala’s Pantry products on shelves at Capital City Market in downtown Lansing later this year.
The parents hope to continue building the brand and eventually manufacture toys and children's clothing.
“This all started from us wanting to make sure that our son was healthy,” said Guy. “The only way I can make sure my children are healthy is to make sure that I’m feeding them the right things.”