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Minnesota couple builds kettle corn firm into an internationally known brand

When Angie and Dan Bastian started a business in 2001 to build a college fund for their children, they had neither money nor experience.

They didn’t understand sales, marketing, retailing or branding. Sixteen years later, their popcorn company, Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP, was acquired for $250 million.

Asked how they met the expectations of retail giants such as Trader Joe’s, Costco and Target, Angie says: “You gotta put your hustle on.”

Bastian (née Miller), who was raised on a small farm, studied nursing at Goshen College.

She told the story of building a business from nothing to an international retail sensation at MEDA’s annual convention in Tucson, Arizona.

Angie was working as a nurse practitioner at a state hospital when Dan, a history teacher and baseball coach, suggested they start a kettle corn business in their Minnesota garage. Their children were aged three and five.

They had no money to invest. Us- ing a zero percent interest credit card, they spent $10,000 to buy a kettle.

They popped kettle corn near a grocery store, sporting events, big box outlets and high schools, “anywhere that anyone would let us pop.”

They brought their young children along, which didn’t always work out well. “I really don’t know what we were thinking.”

“That’s a hallmark of entrepreneurs. You don’t really think about things when you do them sometimes.”

A turning point came when they popped corn outside the Minnesota Vikings’ training camp and offered to give the players free popcorn. They didn’t realize they were marketing to influencers.

The following day, they were asked to become a sponsor of the Vikings, at a cost of $8,000. In return, they would be allowed to sell outside the Metro Dome at Vikings home games.

“Entrepreneurship is lonely. You don’t know if you are right, you don’t know if you are even on the right track. In the early days, it’s hard.”

The Bastians popped kettle corn at games every Sunday September through December, even in blizzards. “Because we did that, it opened up a broader market for us, and it opened up a place for us to get noticed.”

One of their purchasers was a person from a local grocery chain.

He agreed to start carrying their product but told them they needed to meet quality standards and couldn’t work out of their garage.

In 2002, they bought an indoor kettle, rented 150 square feet in the back of a grocery store, started a production line and worked on packaging.

Two years later, they began selling to three area grocery stores and a co-op. They did demos in stores every weekend, as that was the only marketing they could afford.

By 2005, they had needed more space and purchased a 2,200-square- foot building. After outgrowing that building in a year, they found a 20,000-square-foot warehouse.

As their business grew, they realized they needed a lot of things. Eight to 10 banks said no to expansion proposals. At one point, they had a $350,000 piece of equipment coming and no way to pay for it. In desperation, they called their babysitter’s father, a local community banker, and found a supportive lender.

Angie was doing the company books in the evening after working all day as a nurse. Dan had gone full-time with the business but didn’t get his first paycheque — for $500 — until 2008.

“There was a place in our lives during that time, where we didn’t sleep too much, she said “We weren’t business people. All we had was ambition, and a successful product that was selling.”

“Entrepreneurship is lonely. You don’t know if you are right, you don’t know if you are even on the right track. In the early days, it’s hard.”

When their banker gave them a “character” loan, “it was a relief to have someone believe in us.’’

They took out a $1.5 million loan with a $350,000 line of credit. Ironically, they got the loan just before the credit market dried up at the onset of the Great Recession. Had they waited, “it just wouldn’t have happened.”

The company won an account to supply private label popcorn to the Trader Joe’s chain. The initial order was 25 truckloads of product. Their firm had only ever shipped a single truckload every day or two.
Beginning in August of 2008,

they hired 101 people in 60 days, almost quadrupling their previous staff of 40. Learning of Sudanese and Somali refugees who had difficulty getting jobs, they created a safe place for these people to work.
Popping corn in a kettle heated to 500 degrees is not glamorous work. The Bastians tried to build community and a supportive environment, where workers “knew that they were valued, where they knew that they were important to us.”

Part of that philosophy was paying employees to volunteer. People who made between $15 and $20 an hour, with five to six children to support, wouldn’t otherwise have time to volunteer, she said.

As the business grew, it attracted interest from bankers and private equity firms. Angie wasn’t that interested. Her brother-in-law, the firm’s chief financial officer, suggested capital would eventually be needed for future expansion.

Those encounters helped them see the need to develop a professional sales and marketing team, build out distribution and develop an employee equity program.

Along the way, the company celebrated every media mention it received, every success and even every failure. “Failure was the fertilizer that grows something.”

Growth also required change. In 2011, Angie was down to nursing two days a week. When a private equity firm invested, they told her that she should be at the company every day.

That request ended her 28-year career in nursing.

Between 2011 and 2014, the firm grew from $8 million to $80 million in sales.

Success allowed the Bastians time for introspection, to consider what they wanted their product to stand for, “what really matters to us?”

Early on, they visited snack shelves in stores to understand other popcorn offerings. They found a range of male-named products: Orville Redenbacher, Cracker Jack, Harry & David and others.

“I just said — where are the popcorn women? That’s how we got to be Angie’s.”

Her perception of the salty snack aisle was that it was focused on men. “The snacks aimed at women; I think they thought we were all on a diet.”

Angie wanted to change the language of selling and respect female consumers. She aimed to provide a voice of empowerment for women, “loud and proud ... and experience ourselves for who we are.”

Once they could afford national advertising, they created a campaign called “crush it” that featured stories from ordinary women.

“What our interest was was to make women visible, on the shelves, in life, to celebrate who they are.”

Male grocery store and drug store buyers resisted the concept, but their support staff liked it.

In 2017, Conagra Brands purchased the firm for $250 million. Angie was hired on a retainer to represent the brand.

Angie Bastian now volunteers with C200, which connects women business leaders around the world. The organization funds women’s MBA education and start-ups.