HERMITAGE — The fruit juice NIU FlaMingo — named after the Hawaiian word for coconut — has been available on store shelves and restaurant menus for the past year, but its teenage CEO said the company behind it is still expanding.
Originally started in 2011 by Hickory High School junior Cynthia Torrence, 16, the low-sugar drink had its first official ribbon cutting and celebration in 2019 at the eCenter in Hermitage, with the arrival of the first 300 cases of NIU FlaMingo from MetaBrand in New Jersey.
The growing company hit another benchmark last month when, Cynthia received a $10,000 PayPal Empowerment Grant, a joint program of the PayPal online payment corporation and the Association for Enterprise Opportunity.
She said the grant is a big deal for enterprises like hers that are trying to succeed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It really helps out small businesses who have kind of been stuck indoors,” Cynthia said. “I’m really appreciative toward them for the grant.”
NIU is a part of the family’s corporation — TALLS LLC, an acronym for Torrence Avery Logistics Lemonade and Scholastics.
Dr. April Torrence, Cynthia’s mother, said the grant requirements included financial documents, and certification of minority and veteran ownership, with Cynthia’s father, Kelvin Torrence, fulfilling the last criteria.
Cynthia said she hasn’t yet determined exactly how she will spend the grant funds, but April said some of it will go toward a major goal of marketing outreach, such as purchasing new cameras to produce video content.
And the grant isn’t the only advancement the company is making this year.
Cynthia and her family have frequently traveled to meet with restaurant and store owners, and NIU FlaMingo became available on the Amazon website earlier this year. Social media has been a part of the company since 2017, but Cynthia said the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic helped drive a push toward selling online.
NIU merchandise — including shirts, hoodies and keychains — also became available on Zazzle.com two months ago, after requests for NIU-themed items over the last couple of years.
“Being reduced to just online for me and my mom, getting our product on Amazon and other online places really took the weight off our shoulders and let us focus on social media and merchandise,” Cynthia said.
NIU FlaMingo is available locally at businesses including the Farrell Golden Dawn grocery store and Hangry’s Sub Shop and LuLu Beans Cafe in Sharon, but Cynthia said she’s looking to expand the brand’s reach by meeting with retailers and providing samples of the product.
She said store and restaurant owners are usually receptive, and often surprised at the age of the entrepreneur pitching the product.
“Sometimes they’ll say ‘when I was your age I was not doing that, I was outside playing,’” Cynthia said. “They’re really enthusiastic about taking my product in and I think they’re happy to support an entrepreneur.”
Because NIU FlaMingo has lower sugar than similar fruit juices on the market, Cynthia said that has allowed the company to market its products toward specialty natural food retailers like Whole Food Cooperative in Erie or Wholesome Fare Natural Foods in Hermitage. April said NIU FlaMingo’s versatility has also helped boost its popularity with retailers and customers.
Later this fall, NIU will also launch its second official flavor, NIU Berry Blast — which Cynthia describes as a raspberry mix, and she plans to release about three other flavors.
Though she eventually plans to sell the company so she can study criminal justice at Pace University in New York City, Cynthia said she was grateful for the support she is receiving in getting her business off the ground.
Along with her mother and father, Cynthia credited former eCenter Executive Director Ketaki Desai and Hermitage Assistant City Manager Gary Gulla for their assistance, along with the eCenter for continuing to provide space when she needs it. She also wanted to thank Gary Sigler of Daffin’s Candies, who provided NIU some warehouse space for its first shipments.
“For a small business owner to open their space to a budding, up-and-coming business owner, that’s very sacrificial and an act of kindness and humanity,” April said.
For other young entrepreneurs, Cynthia had some simple advice — “go for it.”
“If you’re really passionate about something and you want to make a business out of it, and you want to make money doing what you love or even running a nonprofit helping people, go for it. I wish you all the best,” she said.
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