How one ‘momtrepreneur’ gave the brown bag the sack — and made a million bucks

Kelly Lester’s first love is acting — she’s appeared in movies, on stage and in television shows such as “The Young and the Restless” and “Criminal Minds” — but for nearly 20 years, she’s been a one-woman show off-camera, developing popular products for the home.

Her latest endeavor, genius in its simplicity, grossed more than $1.6 million last year and became a best-seller on Amazon.com. The product? Lunchboxes.

“I love thinking of ideas and finding a market for products that can improve people’s lives,” she said. “That’s very fulfilling.” 

The Woodland Hills resident launched EasyLunchboxes in 2009 to sell compartmentalized, BPA-free plastic lunchboxes, mini dip and sauce containers, and lunch bag coolers. She said she developed the idea because packing lunches for her three daughters was so stressful.

“Once I figured out what I wanted to pack for them, it was a big struggle to fit it all into different lunch bags and containers,” she said. “Every night was annoying.”

The prototype already existed. The UCLA grad just tweaked it and put her own spin on it. The lunchboxes — simple, rectangular, unadorned except for lids that come in a variety of colors — are safe for the dishwasher, freezer and microwave.  

“It’s great for people with allergies, dietary restrictions and people who are kosher,” she said. “The lids are easy to open, so it’s great for small children and people with disabilities.” 

Her products have become the No. 1-selling lunchboxes on Amazon since 2011, have been featured in a book, and have gained her the respect and admiration of lunch-packers everywhere. 

“This was supposed to be my side job,” said Lester, 53. “But running a business is never a side job. It’s become my full-time job.”

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The fact that she doesn’t have an MBA or a formal background in business didn’t set her back. Armed only with Google, Lester learned how to get her products made in a factory in China, and where and how to sell them. Too bad she had no budget left for marketing.

“It forced me to become creative and get out there every day and communicate with people who need this kind of product,” Lester said. 

She set up social media pages and gave away the lunchboxes to bloggers, asking them to review her products. It became a grass-roots effort that still pays off today. According to Lester, about 90 percent of her sales come from the social media site Pinterest. 

Not that everything has gone as planned. Twice, the factory in China producing her lunchboxes shut down because of a power failure. The second time occurred during a critical back-to-school sales period, and she was out of stock for a month and a half. 

“My fans waited, and customers were very patient. I kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, here’s what happened,’ and I caught them when they came back in,” she said. 

Getting onto the Fulfillment by Amazon program has helped her company’s success. Her products are shipped from Amazon’s warehouse, and the company — which invited her to speak to reporters at the official Amazon warehouse this past Cyber Monday after Thanksgiving — takes a percentage of the sales. 

Last year, Lester’s efforts were rewarded when she was featured in a “Cooking With Trader Joe’s” cookbook, which shows readers how to pack a variety of lunches using groceries from the store. With the help of her blogging friends, she included different combinations of foods to put into her lunchboxes, such as vegan burgers, reuben pasta salad and muffins. 

One of those collaborators was Laura Fuentes of MOMables, a Web site that promotes healthy school lunch ideas. 

“Kelly is just fantastic when it comes to promoting other people’s work in her containers,” she said. “And she has gone beyond, ‘I just sell a container.’ ”

The work of Corey Valley, owner of the Family Fresh Meals food blog, also appeared in the book. She said that, thanks to EasyLunchboxes, more people are packing and, therefore, eating healthier: “Kelly seems genuinely concerned about helping people feed their families better and making the lunch-packing experience easier.”

This isn’t Lester’s first foray into the business world. In 1994, she was inspired to decorate light-switch covers, which she said were “beige and boring.” She taught herself graphic design and Photoshop, and cut pictures out of magazines to paste onto the covers. 

By the end of a 12-year run, when she sold the company, she was licensing art from greats like Andy Warhol and Van Gogh and had more than 300 different designs in circulation. 

This “momtrepreneur,” who has been married to actor Loren Lester for 25 years, won’t slow down anytime soon. Her next goal is to combine EasyLunchboxes with her original career ambition, acting, and host her own Web series about packing lunches. She wants to showcase the people she’s worked with throughout the years and demonstrate how to create simple, healthy lunches for adults and children. On the side, she’s working on a solo Doris Day show for the stage and blogs on her personal Web site, KellyLester.com. 

Right now, Lester enjoys what she does and is glad that she can balance EasyLunchboxes and her business activities with her personal life. 

“I think I’ve set a great example for my daughters and showed them that you can accomplish so many different things,” she said. “They know how much hard work goes into something. You can be a successful business owner in your PJ’s, right from your den.”

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Some of Lester’s compartmentalized containers filled with assorted foods. Photos courtesy of Kelly Lester

Main photo: Kelly Lester with some of her EasyLunchboxes