By Donna Fenn | May 18, 2011
My husband Dan and I started Angie’s Kettle Corn in 2001 in our garage in Mankato, Minnesota because we needed to establish a college fund for our daughter, Aunikah, and our son, Tripp, who were five and three at the time. We were intrigued by the challenge of popping kettle corn because it’s a simple, festive food and we thought we could do it better than anyone already producing it. The goal was to work together as a family doing something fun. Our children were too small to understand that we also wanted to use this venture to teach them firsthand that if you start with a good idea, hard work and remain dedicated, that this idea could be put it into action.
I am a nurse practitioner and Dan is a history teacher. We didn’t have a lot of money but we had ambition and an objective. We decided to purchase kettle corn equipment on the Internet, which we financed with zero percent credit cards. We started selling our product at fairs and festivals with our children, who would help out by putting labels on the bags and later would accompany us to local events. They learned how to make change, greet people, and the importance of saying ‘thank you’ to our customers.
Our big break came when we became the Kettle Corn of the Minnesota Vikings NFL football team, where we built a fan base. The Vikings travel to Mankato every August for their annual training camp at Minnesota State University. Dan and I spent a Sunday afternoon popping 120 bags of kettle corn. We donated these bags to the players and coaches as snacks for their Sunday evening film review. They loved it! The next day the Vikings offered us an opportunity to be their official kettle corn. We started selling at all of the Viking home games in the fall of 2002. People would ask where they could find our kettle corn in the off-season, so in 2004, we decided it was time to take the business indoors and began manufacturing.
We rented kitchen space in the back of a bakery, which we quickly outgrew. Our local business development center and hometown bank put together a package to finance the purchase of a building and the equipment. We were able to manufacture 300 bags of kettle corn in four hours — amazing progress for us at the time. We out-grew this space in 12 months, so we built an addition on a large warehouse and invested in more kettles and more equipment. Dan left teaching to run the business full time. Our family lived off of my income and we put every dime we made back into the business. We hired part-time university students to help Dan manufacture and a couple of retired teachers to help deliver and demo our product. I did the books and payroll after we put the kids to bed at night. Dan would get up at four in the morning and delivery our kettle corn to grocery stores, then return to our facility in the afternoon and pop the kettle corn.
Each time that we needed to make a decision to grow or invest, Dan and I would pause and say to each other, “Well, we can always go back to what we were doing before and be fine.” But we always made the decision to forge ahead, to take a risk, and we worked our tails off to mitigate that risk. Our proudest accomplishment during the demands of building a business is that we continued to remain active in our children’s lives. Dan coached baseball and basketball, I was Girl Scout leader, we volunteered at the kid’s school and Aunikah and I always planted an organic garden as our summer project.
It was extremely important to me as a mom that our company manufacture an authentic, simple and healthy product, and one with absolutely no artificial anything. We chose to keep nuts or any nut products out of our facility; in the past year, we’ve become certified gluten-free. Fortunately, choosing to become kosher, certified gluten free, and free of nut products cost us very little and added great value to our product. These choices opened doors and created interest from distributors and retailers. What I didn’t realize at the time was how important our allergen and gluten-free product would be to so many moms who have children with food intolerances. We’re proud to offer a product that kids enjoy and that moms can feel good about serving as a special treat.
I quit my job as a nurse practitioner and became president of Angie’s Kettle Corn, which is now a multi-million dollar business that employs over 130 persons and is sold in 49 states. Last year, we popped over 2.5 million pounds of popcorn. We’re found in national stores including SuperTarget, Whole Foods, and Costco. Aunikah and Tripp are now busy being teenagers taking a break from the kettle corn business, but believe that anything is possible if you work hard enough and wisely. Oh yes, and the need to establish a college fund? We’ve got that covered.