Mushrooms don’t get enough respect, according to Marilyn Yang’s perspective. The founder of Fun-Gal Snacks is hoping to increase their profile by incorporating shiitakes (which account for a quarter of the world’s edible mushroom production) into Popadelics, a line of crunchy chips that are vegan, non-GMO, and full of fiber and protein.
To learn more about the line of snacks and the company's origins, Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery spoke to Yang.
Jenni Spinner: Could you please share how the shiitake mushroom figures into cuisine around the world—Asia, and then the rest of the globe?
Marilyn Yang: Shiitake mushrooms originated in China between 1000 and 1100 A.D. and are a symbol of youthfulness and virility in Chinese culture. Today, shiitakes are primarily grown in Japan and China, and the name “shiitake” is derived from the mushroom’s Japanese name, which loosely translates into “tree mushroom.” Shiitake mushrooms are also known as Chinese mushrooms, black mushrooms, and oakwood mushrooms, as they are best grown on oak logs.
Shiitake mushrooms play an important role in Asian cuisine, including in soup and stir-fry dishes. They’re also used in Eastern medicine for their medicinal properties; namely, there are compounds in shiitake mushrooms that could help reduce inflammation, boost immunity, and support heart health. Although still primarily used in Asian cuisine, shiitake mushrooms are slowly making their way to Western cuisine. In the U.S., however, white button mushrooms are still by far the leading mushroom and in fact, white button mushrooms represent about 90% of mushroom consumption domestically.
JS: What are some of the health benefits associated with mushrooms?
MY: In terms of shiitake mushrooms specifically, they’re the only natural plant-based source of vitamin D. Shiitake mushrooms are also a good source of fiber, B vitamins, and minerals like magnesium and selenium. These compounds have been suggested to support heart health, immunity, and some studies have shown that shiitake mushrooms may even prevent cancer. Other studies have also shown that consuming shiitake mushrooms can help lower cholesterol, improve cell function, and gut immunity, and reduce inflammation, and a study published in the Journal of Obesity concluded that shiitake could help reduce and prevent weight gain and fat build-up.
JS: Please share some insight as to how the Popadelics team decided to transform that shiitake, which makes up so much of the world’s edible mushroom intake, and turn it into a crunchy snack.
MY: My co-founder Mike Casali and I, partners in both business and in life, are both huge lifelong mushroom lovers, to the extent that it was actually a concrete topic we bonded over when we first started dating. Personally, I was a super picky eater growing up, and mushrooms of all kinds were probably the only thing that my parents could get me to eat at one point. Liking mushrooms is actually a defining part of my personality. When I first told some friends about Popadelics during the early days of coming up with the idea, I actually had a friend say to me, “Marilyn, that’s so on brand for you,” if that’s any indication!
As for how Popadelics specifically came about, it really traces back to the early days of the COVID-19 lockdowns in the spring of 2020. Mike and I live in NYC, so we were very much cooped up in our small apartment in those early days. We are both from finance backgrounds and have always wanted to start a company, but just never had the right idea.
During this lockdown period, we had a lot of time to brainstorm, but also the only occasion we had to leave our apartment was to go grocery shopping. As foodies, that was the closest we could get to eating out at the time, so we started more or less trying all of the new snacks in the snack aisle. And it really just hit us one day: if there are kale chips, carrot chips, and cauliflower chips, why shouldn’t there be mushroom chips, too? It started out with just us being consumers and huge mushroom lovers and wanting to try some mushroom chips, and we were surprised to find that mushroom chips were more or less nonexistent, at least in stores, and the mushroom chips that were out there online were unbranded, unflavored, and unexciting.
There wasn’t much of a mushroom chip category at all, which we were surprised by. That got the creative juices flowing, and the more we looked into it, the more excited we got; namely, we felt that the timing was perfect between not only mushrooms rising in popularity between the introduction of mushroom coffees, teas, and supplements, but also having the free time during COVID to focus on a startup. And so, Popadelics was born—we wanted to create a young, edgy brand that got both mushroom lovers and doubters alike excited about eating mushrooms.
Even in the beginning, we had a very clear idea of what we wanted the end product to be: a crunchy chip, made from a whole mushroom cap. The whole mushroom cap was important to us since we wanted to show the consumer that this is a “real” mushroom, and that there isn’t any funny business, since a lot of veggie chips actually have a lot of unknown, often unhealthy fillers in them. We also wanted it to be crunchy, like a potato chip. But first and foremost, we wanted to create a better-for-you snack that actually tastes good, that not only would you want to eat in general, but also would be willing to eat in place of potato chips.
Our ultimate goal is to make mushroom chips, and mushrooms of all kinds, more mainstream. I remember being made fun of as a kid (and even now) for liking mushrooms, and I feel like a lot of people who claim to “not like” mushrooms just haven’t experienced mushrooms in the “right” way. By making them into a crunchy, chip-like texture, we thought that would broaden their appeal, and since launching, we’ve heard all the time at events comments like, “I hate mushrooms, but these chips are amazing,” and that’s exactly the type of reaction we’re looking for.
And why shiitakes? When we came up with the idea, we actually didn’t have a specific mushroom varietal in mind. Neither Mike nor I are chefs (we live in NYC and have a tiny kitchen, after all) so we worked with the R&D arm of CPG startup consultancy RodeoCPG to develop what ultimately became Popadelics. With Rodeo, we tried a number of combinations of cooking methods and mushrooms, and the result was clear: shiitake mushrooms tasted the best, by far, and also had the best texture. We were looking for the tastiest mushroom when made into a chip, and shiitake mushrooms were the undisputed winner, even better that they’re also some of the most nutritious.
JS: Could you please tell us some of the challenges you encountered on the path from idea to launch, and how you overcame them?
MY: Aside from the normal challenges of starting a business, we ran into all sorts of additional challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, notably with sourcing and production. We worked with RodeoCPG’s operations consulting team to help us set up our supply chain and production, so huge thanks to them for working through it with us during a really strange time in the world!
When we conceptualized the product, our goal was initially to be able to source and produce 100% domestically, in the U.S. We quickly found that that would be difficult, in large part because shiitake mushrooms are still not as commonly cultivated in the U.S., and domestic shiitake mushrooms are typically cultivated for foodservice (i.e. restaurant) applications and thus carry “gourmet restaurant” pricing. Raw shiitake mushrooms grown in the U.S. were at too high of a price point to make practical sense for a reasonably priced snack product.
On top of that, we use a unique cooking method called vacuum frying, which requires specialized equipment but allows foods to cook at much lower temperatures while absorbing less oil and retaining more of their color, nutrients, texture, and flavor. We quickly found that vacuum frying was particularly difficult to do domestically, too, in large part because co-packers did not own the equipment, and as a startup, we could not afford to purchase our own machines yet, which can be as much as $1 million each.
Eventually, we hope to be able to produce domestically by purchasing our own vacuum frying equipment and even perhaps cultivating our own shiitake mushrooms (or partnering with domestic farms to do so), but in the meantime, we are fortunate to be working with a U.S.-based importer who sources our shiitake mushrooms “pre-vacuum-fried” from China. All of our other ingredients aside from the shiitake mushrooms are domestically produced, however, and we season and package everything with our co-packer in Chicago.
JS: Then, please tell us about the finished Popadelics products, including the current flavor varieties.
Popadelics Crunchy Mushroom Chips are shiitake mushrooms reimagined for the modern superfood snacker that bursts with flavor and packs an addictive crunch. To produce its signature crunch, Popadelics Crunchy Mushroom Chips leverage a unique cooking method called vacuum frying, which allows foods to cook at much lower temperatures while absorbing less oil and retaining more of their color, nutrients, texture, and flavor. Popadelics are also vegan, gluten-free, kosher, and non-GMO (our snacks are Non-GMO Project certified and kosher certified via OU). Popadelics is currently available in three addictive, mouth-watering flavors—rippin’ Truffle Parm, Twisted Thai Chili, and Rad Rosemary + Salt. Packed with incredible flavor and a dense, crispy texture, our vegan snacks will have you trippin’ off the taste!
JS: Your products soon will be available in Urban Outfitters. What can you tell us about that unique retail partnership?
MY: We like to say that Popadelics isn’t just a snack— they’re an experience. We’re also targeting a younger, edgier crowd. And with that, it lends itself to appear not just in grocery stores, but more “non-traditional” retail stores, such as Urban Outfitters. In particular, at least when I’m personally at Urban Outfitters, I’m not necessarily looking for a snack, but I’m definitely keeping my eyes peeled for new, unique things. They’ve always had such a unique curation of trinkets between beauty products, vinyls, and even snacks. Because most people aren’t familiar with mushroom chips, we find that our product really lends itself to being in locations and stores where discovery is at the forefront, such as Urban Outfitters. Plus, Urban Outfitters currently carries a bunch of mushroom-themed products from mushroom “stuffed animals” to mushroom decor, so it’s a great setting for our snacks!
JS: A portion of Popadelics sales supports various health and wellness causes—could you please tell us about that program, and the charity partners you’ll be helping out?
MY: When we started Fun-Gal Snacks, the parent company of Popadelics, having some aspect of social impact was very important to us. At the same time we founded Fun-Gal Snacks, we also founded the Fun-Gal Snacks Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation that will eventually support a variety of causes centered around health and wellness. One of the first causes we identified was the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, which was the first academic institution to receive approval to conduct various mental health studies to treat depression and addiction using psilocybin. Our goal is to make mushrooms of all kinds mainstream, so it was a logical fit!
As a Chinese-American founder, and having started the company during COVID, we’ve also identified a few Chinatown organizations we intend to support, such as Send Chinatown Love and Welcome to Chinatown in NYC. Most recently, we’ve also announced a partnership with Wellfare, a charitable organization that aims to provide access to better-for-you pantry products for low-income families in NYC.
JS: Do you have any plans in the works—new flavors, new retail locations, etc.?
MY: We’ve recently onboarded with a couple of major national grocery distributors, DPI Specialty Foods and Pod Foods, so in particular, we expect to make a big splash into retail come 2023. We’re also in discussions with additional “non-traditional” retailers akin to Urban Outfitters that we’re also very excited to be able to announce soon! In the near term, we’ll be rolling out a smaller, single-serve pouch that will soon be available for order on our website and on Amazon, too, starting in late December 2022. These smaller pouches will of course be at a lower price point, so we expect they’ll allow our snacks to be even more accessible to a broader audience, and also help lower that monetary barrier to trial.