Austin, Texas

Co-founders Zach Harper and Delisa Johnson are manufacturing the plant-based, dairy-free, gluten-free marshmallow creme of your dreams.

Photos Bart Taylor

Meticulously created in a commercial kitchen out of Austin, Funky Mello is the passion project born out of Harper and Johnson’s love for the delicious and gooey dessert most commonly found in s’mores and Rice Krispies Treats.

After reaching a point when consuming marshmallows came with a cost — those delicious treats aren’t exactly the apex of nutritional value, nor are they typically vegan — Johnson and Harper found themselves at an impasse with their favorite dessert.

So, they decided to make their own. After traveling around the country to learn about DIY marshmallow culture, Harper and Johnson formed enough ideas to put into action. “Zach saw that people could make their own marshmallows,” says Johnson. “We were inspired by that and decided to do it as well.”

They cycled through dozens of recipes — likely more than 100 different variations — before finally finding a couple of versions that stuck. But rather than sticking to the traditional format of a cylinder shape, Johnson and Harper opted for a creme.

“We finally created marshmallows that were somewhat stable, but they retained a lot of moisture in the package,” says Johnson. “We’ve always had, in the back of our minds, a vision of going towards creme because it’s a much more versatile product: it’s easier to flavor, easier to make, more cost effective. So, we ended up doing the creme, which is also allergen free. It’s been such a big hit.”

Since launching in 2018, Funky Mello has found a niche audience: health-conscious dessert lovers willing to try something new. Their current creme flavors — vanilla, cookie, and strawberry — are inviting enough for new customers to approach, yet interesting enough to leap out at the average grocery store patron.

To create a marshmallow is to be something of a scientist. This is where the ingenuity of Funky Mello takes center stage. “You really have to have a certain amount of equipment for marshmallow and marshmallow creme,” says Harper. “We’ve devoted a lot of nights to research because there’s so much science behind it. When you look at a marshmallow, I’m not sure people realize how much science goes into creating it.”

In order to get the perfect consistency without sacrificing their vegan label, Johnson and Harper had to acquire large amounts of aquafaba — a starchy liquid often derived from cooked chickpeas. But it wasn’t viable to simply purchase chickpeas when aquafaba was needed.

Enter Afia Foods. As part of a small business accelerator program, Johnson and Harper connected with a woman that owned a Mediterranean frozen goods line. She had plenty of aquafaba, and little use for it.

“Giving someone waste to create a product is a great idea,” says Johnson. “It didn’t really take too much discussing to agree to it. We pride ourselves on using aquafaba — as the main ingredient.

“It creates this viscous fluffiness, which is the base of our marshmallow. We actually get the leftover chickpea fluid from other restaurants or other brands and use that in our product. It minimizes the waste and footprint from their product and turning it into something delicious.

Harper adds, “We’ve tried a lot of different substitutes to get that replacement for gelatin. We discovered that aquafaba worked really well for us.”

Whether a child or adult, it’s an exciting time to be on the vegan marshmallow creme trail. “It’s really just about making people feel good,” says Johnson. “We like to call ourselves the ‘feel-good marshmallow company.’ That’s what motivates us and keeps us going: making sure people have a good time.”

Challenges: The entire Funky Mello production process is still by hand, by Johnson and Harper, when they have the time. “In the early days, we were just a cottage business,” says Harper. “We were making it in our kitchen because we’d take it to farmers markets in the early, early days. As we’ve continued to grow and started to get into retail stores, we got into a commercial kitchen. Some of our equipment got a little bigger, such as our mixer. And that’s kind of where we’re still at right now.”

They are in the growing pains between further maximizing production possibilities and jumping up to automation. It can be a slog. “Everything right now is still very manual, but we hope to change that pretty soon,” says Johnson. “Even automating the mixing part or just one part of the process would be great for us in order to scale. Currently, we really do a made-to-order system. We make sure to produce the next couple weeks of orders that we can deliver to them. It kind of fluctuates, but we will have a more static number once we scale up.”

Opportunities: After snagging a spot in the exclusive Ghostline Kitchens — an expertly curated small-business commercial kitchen space in Austin — Funky Mello should be able to up its production and hit its next stage of growth. “We have a number of large retail partners that are lining up,” says Harper. “Our creme goes really well with food service, particularly with ice cream shops, coffee shops, and also private labels. You’ll see a lot of different things involving our creme in the next year.”

“We do hope to scale nationwide,” says Johnson. “We are in a good number of stores all across the nation in the Northeast. We’re in the West Coast now. We hope to have a presence in every state so that everyone has a chance to have our creme.”

Needs: With Johnson transitioning to a full-time employee in late 2021 and an upcoming fundraising push to secure more equipment, Funky Mello is primed for growth. “It’s really about scaling up right now,” says Harper. “We’ve been very fortunate to have so much interest in our business this year and early next year. We’re two people right now, so we’re trying to build a business from the ground up and have our ducks in a line.”