Growing up in the Midwest, Michelle and Ryan Sparrow were surrounded by the agricultural business. Michelle was raised on a family farm in Illinois; her husband, Ryan, and his father ran a small popcorn operation prosperous enough to pay for his Purdue University education.
Years later, even when Ryan’s work brought the family to the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania metro area, they always believed they’d return home to the Midwest. They didn’t necessarily anticipate the return to popcorn that followed, however.
In the meantime, Michelle Sparrow embarked on a 28-year health care career; one that took her from Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois, where she earned both her BSN and RN degrees, to Villanova University in Pennsylvania, where she completed an MBA as well. Upon moving East, Michelle worked in cancer screening for a private endoscopy practice, and then became a nurse administrator and surgery unit manager at the University of Pennsylvania health care system. There, she eventually assumed an administrative role at the Abramson Cancer Center, overseeing oncology operations, including radiation therapy.
In February 2020, when her youngest daughter graduated college, Michelle Sparrow started planning for opportunities outside of the health care field. Fortuitously or not, Sparrow’s departure from Penn came right at the outset of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the United States. When the pandemic hit, the family’s Haddonfield, New Jersey household went from empty nest to full almost overnight.
The Sparrows’ second daughter, who lives nearby in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, often stopped in with her young daughter. Their third daughter, an oncology nurse at Penn, moved in with her mom and sisters while she looked for a house outside the city. The youngest daughter, a graduate-school student who had begun a high-school teaching career, was already living at home.
“In those months, we joked that our house was a remote branch,” Sparrow said. “Kids were doing remote school, I was teaching remotely, my daughter was teaching remotely. Our house was bursting with activities. It was not what I anticipated from the early days of my retirement.”
While the family home was bursting with activity, Ryan remained in Illinois for the better part of nine months. There, he worked to ramp up Urban Farmer, a gluten-free pizza business he had co-developed, for a private-equity sale. He didn’t return to New Jersey full-time until December 2020, when the deal was completed. Afterwards, he was ready to revisit an idea that had been percolating from his childhood.
“Ryan always knew he wanted to get back into popcorn,” Michelle Sparrow said. “With his expertise in gluten-free manufacturing and food manufacturing, it made a lot of sense. So, we started with popcorn in March 2021.”
A year after the pandemic broke, the family was all-in. Together, they launched Sparrow’s Snacks, a homemade food business based around premium, high-quality ingredients, like organic corn, grass-fed Irish butter, pure coconut oil and sea salt. They also resolved to create allergen-safe products, which meant using gluten-free (or reduced), nut-free, and vegan or limited-dairy recipes, even if doing so meant the products would cost more to make.
Among the foundational principles of the business, Michelle Sparrow said the most important is creating food that she could feed to her own family without worrying about its integrity. The business has grown a steady following among customers who appreciate both gourmet snacks and an allergen-friendly product.
“I worked in an industry where, for 25 years, I had a built-in mission to take care of people,” she said. “It’s so easy to get onboard with that mission.
“Our daughters have had some health challenges, including Type I diabetes and celiac, and we recognize the challenges of inflammation,” Michelle Sparrow said.
“We’ve committed to eating organic, reduced gluten, and reduced dairy. Creating a healthy environment for people, individuals and families — that’s the same format with which we’re building our store,” she said.
“We’re working hard on building a place that’s a destination for people to gather; a super-neat indoor space that’s connected to the outdoor space,” Michelle Sparrow said. “We came at it from the perspective of being a great place to gather; through to the design aesthetic, it really is form following function.”
Until the storefront is completed, Sparrow’s Snacks is a mail-order-only business that pops up on special occasions, including street fairs, private parties and other local events. When it’s time to vend popcorn onsite, the family relies on its showstopper: a vintage, heirloom popcorn wagon that dates back to 1906. Originally steam-powered and horse-drawn, they joke that it’s now pulled by Sparrows.
While the business finalizes plans for its brick-and-mortar footprint, Michelle and Ryan’s oldest daughter, Abigail, has joined Sparrow’s Snacks full time to support its online operations. As the director of customer engagement, Abigail, a former digital media producer in Los Angeles, handles all client-facing interactions. Mom and dad manage production and flavor development, and are also working to secure an industrial manufacturing facility from which to expand the business and support the production of other gluten-free foods and food manufacturers.
“We’re looking at the potential of helping people commercialize their product in a different way,” Michelle Sparrow said. “A year ago, our plan was to say, ‘Do you want to try this?’ Now we’ve grown into a full-fledged business.”