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Growing up in Solomon, a small town about 90 minutes north of Wichita, Eddie Sandoval kept himself busy with sports and running his own lawn mowing company.
It was the first taste of entrepreneurship for Sandoval, who recalls growing up as part of the only Mexican family in the town of less than 1,000 people. His parents moved the family there from Chihuahua, Mexico.
“My sister says I have been an entrepreneur ever since I was a kid,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval, now CEO and owner of Pinole Blue, has come full circle. On Friday, he and his business partners were contestants on “Shark Tank,” the long-running popular ABC show that features entrepreneurs pitching a roster of investors for their help. Appearing on the show was the latest achievement for a business that hatched as an idea in the dorms of Wichita State University.
He attended WSU as a Linwood Sexton Endowed Scholarship recipient and pursued a finance degree. That’s where he came up with the idea of starting a pinole business. Pinole is a toasted powdered corn that can be mixed with spices such as cocoa, agave, cinnamon, chia seeds or vanilla. Pinole is considered an energy food and can be the base for other items, including cereals, baked goods, tortillas and beverages.
Sandoval said as a child he traveled to Mexico with his parents and had pinole as a drink. On the trips, he experienced the indigenous community in the mountains of Chihuahua where his father grew up and their minimalist approach, including eating organic food and running long distances with sandals. The trips helped him learn more about the health benefits of blue corn and find a source for it in Chihuahua.
As a WSU student, Sandoval took the idea of Pinole Blue to a startup competition on campus — and won the $10,000 prize. The seed money allowed him to focus on the business full time.
The Wichita Beacon asked Sandoval about Pinole Blue, which he launched from his garage in 2017, and what contributed to the success of the business, challenges he faced and his tips for young entrepreneurs. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you define success?
It’s funny. As a finance major, I always thought it was always money and profit that made success. But to me now it’s more about how much fun do you have with it? And how many people’s lives did you change in a positive way? So I think everyone has their own way of thinking of success. Some people obviously care more about money. To me, it’s more about how can I make delicious food more available in other people’s hands? But at the same time, how do I inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs, and how do I connect these bridges and cultures through food?
What do you feel most proud of when you think about your business?
We’ve only been in business for four short years and it’s been a wild journey. But so far I think the biggest one has been the media coverage. I mean, the fact that we were able to get on BuzzFeed on Tasty, our blue tortillas just won an award in San Francisco for the Good Food Awards program out of 5,000 applicants. But I think in general, it’s just been the opportunity to inspire other Latino and Latinx entrepreneurs to show that it doesn’t matter your background or where you come from, that even small products like pinole and tortillas from a guy from a small town in north central Kansas can go national and almost international. And that it’s making an impact. I think that’s been my biggest proud moment and especially for my parents because they’re coming from communities that don’t even have electricity or water. And the fact that they migrated to this country and my dad still works. He’s 65 years old and he still works 10- to 12-hour shifts. And the fact that their son is making products available to others, I think that’s a big one. And owning a business, too, because they both never were able to own a business because of the language barriers and other factors. So I know it makes them both really proud that I own my business. There is a video where we surprised my dad at the construction site, when I was first starting, and that video went viral in social media.
What’s been the most important move for the success of your business?
The biggest one for sure was to implement e-commerce. Also, social media. I think TikTok for sure is what helped us survive during the pandemic. Some people are scared of TikTok, especially if you’re older. But the reason TikTok does so well is because a lot of people on it are being so unique, they’re being themselves. And I think that’s actually the most important thing. I think TikTok helped push me to talk more about my story, to talk about my parents, to talk about how our products are made. And I think that’s what people like. They want that connection. And especially the younger generation. You have millennials, you have the Gen X. They want to know what’s the story behind the brand. And that’s been, I would say, one of our biggest moves right now.
Which challenges have you encountered since the beginning of your business?
Almost every day is a challenge. I think the biggest challenge when I started was that I knew nothing about food. So having to learn how to get food licenses, food inspections and all that, was pretty tough. Growing your brand can be really hard too. But I think one of our biggest challenges was really educating people about our product. At first people were so confused about our product because we sold pinole and then we sold tortillas. And at one time we even had two different Instagram pages. One was Pinole Tortillas and one was just Pinole Blue just to explain the difference. But thanks to TikTok, we were able to bring those two together and people finally understand our brand and they understand how we make blue food products out of corn and how the story ties and everything. I think at first that was definitely one of the biggest ones. So I always tell people about the challenges, that especially as an entrepreneur, you’re a problem solver. You have to think outside of the box at challenging times.
What opportunities has Wichita offered you to succeed in your business?
You know, Wichita has been great because it’s centrally located. So shipping, especially with the post office, FedEx, with UPS, it’s great because it goes by the region. So we’re right in the middle. So shipping has always been easy. Also, the way of living is way cheaper. I think it is the cheapest city in the nation and has always been a huge blessing, too. And then, I think it’s just been the connections that I’ve been able to make. For example the construction guys and the guys across the street, they have a forklift. They unload stuff for me. Now, my neighbor who is three doors down, he makes our T-shirts. So just being able to have that kind of community where you walk into a coffee shop and you see four people you know, I think that’s been really good. Even though it doesn’t seem like it is, there are a lot of cultural foods here. I mean, you look at all the Hispanic food, the Lebanese food, the Vietnamese. I think being able to connect with different cultures and especially with the Hispanic community here, with a huge Hispanic community here, who are our best customers. Some of those small Hispanic stores who are our top customers. They reorder very often. And then especially being able to meet other people that want to help share about what we do, local radio stations and other news stations and media. It is like we have a small vibrant community here.
What would you tell young people who are thinking of starting a business?
My biggest thing now, especially with social media, is telling people that it’s not always just a great and nice story. Social media always just shows the nice part of a business and you don’t see the challenges and behind the scenes. So for a while I used to joke with people and tell them, “Don’t start a business.” But I think that the biggest thing is really knowing what you’re getting into before you start. And then the second thing is just start it. I think a lot of entrepreneurs don’t even want to try out because they’re so scared. And I tell them, what do you have to lose? Like, if I hadn’t driven down to the border and brought back corn and sold these little bags of pinole up around Wichita and Kansas, I would have never known there was a demand. So how are you going to know if there’s a demand for your idea if you never even tried it? So that’s always my advice.