Dreams, Grit, Scarcity & the Popcorn Child Within

“Where’s the Popcorn Lady??” little Henry’s face dropped. 

Payshee was nowhere to be found. No red and white tent, no cute popcorn truck, no popcorn.

“She’ll be back next week, Henry,” I promised him. I turned and wiped a tear from my eye before anyone saw it.

Dreamin’ of the Big Rig
By the middle of our opening season in 2018, we knew our counter top machine was never going to be mounted on a cart, or on the back of our truck. It simply couldn’t produce the volume of popcorn we needed to make live popping profitable. We needed a bigger solution. So I sat down one day and Googled ‘kettle corn machines.’

For sheets n grins, do it. Go to Google and search for kettle corn machines. 

When I do it, the first thing that comes up, other than the shopping photos, is Northbend Originals (the company we bought our machine from, ultimately, which is probably why it comes up first for me), but just under it is Kettlecornmachine.com. It’s the home of the late, great Greg Sweet and his family, out in Washington State. 

Just under that is a short list of YouTube videos, all by Greg. And that’s what I first clicked on when I started researching the topic. And to be honest, there’s little need to watch anyone else (though I have watched everything that exists on the topic). Not only did Greg dominate the topic of Kettle Corn on YouTube, there really isn’t a close competitor. And of those who are on there, most of them are popping on his machines, and/or learned most of what they know from him.

Greg Sweet was (he died a few years ago, sadly) and still is, probably forever will be, the Master of Kettle Corn. He not only popped and sold millions of dollars worth of the stuff, but also engineered new machines and equipment, redesigning them to be more efficient. Even more important than all of that, he was the evangelist for the entire industry. You canot find a kettle corn vendor in America, and probably anywhere else, who wasn’t originally inspired to get into it by Greg, or inspired to do it differently by him. We’ve ALL seen his videos. And his influence reaches far beyond popcorn; he expanded into other food fending, too. No matter what you vend, you’re gonna learn something from Greg’s videos.

I’ve watched every one of them, multiple times, not only because I learn new stuff every time, but because I feed off of his energy. He simply explodes onto the screen. You cannot help but be caught up in the passion Greg had for vending, especially popcorn. I knew within one or two videos that what Payshee’s Popcorn needed to be successful in the future, was a kettle corn rig, as big a one as we could get. Instead of popping two cups of corn at a time, we could pop upwards of twelve in the same time! So by the end of our first season, we knew the direction we had to go. 

We ditched the ‘cart’ or ‘truck’ model of the business, for what in Minnesota is called a Temporary Seasonal Food Stand: essentially, a food vendor under a tent. You’ve seen them at every event, everywhere. They call it ‘temporary’ because the setup is broken down after each event and transported elsewhere. The ‘seasonal’ part is probably because most of them down’t operate all year, though many of them do, even up here in the frozen tundra of Minnesota.

Just Keep Movin’
We didn’t do much more planning until our first season was over in 2018, in December, because we decided to do holiday gift boxes of Payshee’s caramel corn. But that’s another story all by itself, for another chapter. That January, we took it easy, kicked back, and discussed about our plan to get a kettle corn machine and our license for a Food Stand.

Our old Department of Ag Plan Review for the truck expired before we could get back to modifying it, so we would have to submit a new plan. I began to price out the machines and equipment we needed for the stand. 

We calculated it would run us between $7000 to $9000 to get it all. Most of that was the machine and sifting table. I wanted the 160 quart sized kettle, because I knew that within a short time we would outgrow the 80 quart version. It was a lot of money. And as we looked at our finances, we just didn’t have the cash to pull the trigger in the spring of 2019. 

We were disappointed. I certainly was. I was growing tired of our ‘factory’ model, popping in our kitchen and pre-bagging it. My initial excitement ground down. It had become a bit of a drudge to me. I love Payshee, and popcorn, but I’m also a very social creature. I like the energy of live events; it’s why I loved my job as the manager of the farmers market. I really wanted to move on to live popping under our red and white circus tent. I had grand ideas of how that would look and operate. 

But the money just wasn’t there to do it, yet. So we resigned ourselves to keep chugging along in our kitchen for one more season. Our first event for that year was slated to be Cinco de Mayo in the parking lot of Wabasha Brewing, just a couple blocks from our house. Yeah, I live two blocks from a brewery, and you don’t. Ha! That story, I’ve already published. You can find it HERE.

Less Work, More Money
In our first season, we vended at the farmers market nearly every week, especially at the beginning of the season. But by August and September, Payshee was burning out. To be honest, so was I. Between our regular jobs (writing, farmers market managing, and her 40+ hour bank job) and popping popcorn one or two nights during the week, then 5-6 hours of vending on Saturdays, we were exhausted. 

By the end of the season, Payshee had to take a couple weeks off. It was a relief to me, too. Because she had a traditional ‘9 to 5’ at the bank, I did a lot of the prep work during the week (accounting, social media, email, labeling bags, inventory of ingredients, and on and on). 

So when 2019 rolled around, we made a decision we were not going to work as hard, or as often. Instead, I thought, we would create a bit of scarcity for our product. People were used to us being there every week. I thought that if we were not, they might actually buy more popcorn on the days when we were there. 

We also raised the price of our bags from $5 to $6, but we instituted a new ‘Two Fer’ deal: one bag for $6, or two bags for $10. It was a stroke of genius. 

The scarcity created by our new schedule (only once or twice a month at the market, instead of every week) and the two fer deal, urged our customers to buy more popcorn. This was especially true of our repeat customers who already loved our product and knew that our bagging (realock inside of paper) kept the popcorn fresh for weeks. They snatched up the two fer deal like mad. 

That, combined with our email list customer reward card (VIPER), increased our sales by almost double on the days we were there. So instead of averaging around $180 per event, we went to averaging close to $300 per event, with a hell of a lot less work and energy.

Calling Children of All Ages
We also realized the power of our young customers. Kids love popcorn! I mean, I don’t think adults really do. What I mean, is that it isn’t the adult within us that loves popcorn: it’s the child inside! Every bag we sell is really to a child, either in years, or in heart. Popcorn is a kind of magical time machine. It transports us old farts back to our childhood, because we ate popcorn when we were kids, and those associations are strong. How’s that for insight?

We noticed this during our first season. In particular, we had one kid, Henry, who came to the market nearly every week the first season. When he rounded the corner and saw Payshee’s tent and truck, his face would light up. Then he would turn to his mom, every time, and yell, “The popcorn lady is here!” 

On the rare occasion that first season, when Payshee wasn’t there, his face fell into the basement. It was heartbreaking. I almost cried, myself (and I’m a huge, burly, manly man and stuff). I had to quickly reassure him that she would be back the next week.

I knew Henry would be disappointed with our new schedule in 2019, so I laid awake one night trying to come up with a way to reward our young customers and encourage even more loyalty from them, and their parents. What I came up with was so simple—like the invention of the paper clip—that I was astounded by my own brillance, and humbled by it at the same time. 

Stickers. Yeah, just stickers. Kids love stickers. But not just any old sticker. I designed a special name tag sticker using the format for our flavor labels—same size, same printable stickers (see photos below). All it says, in our logo font, is ‘Payshee’s Pals’ with a blank space underneath, bordered in yellow-gold, where Payshee could write the kid’s name. They LOVED’EM! Omg, they did. 

We had two girls, daughters of one of our market vendors, who came almost every week, got their stickers, then marched around the market telling people to buy Payshee’s Popcorn! Cutest sales persons on Earth! We couldn’t buy that kind of marketing if we had millions of dollars!

Take Their Name to the Bank
And we got to learn their names… 

The late great, Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, once said, “The sweetest sound in the world is a person’s own name.” He was right. We work very hard at Payshee’s Popcorn to learn all of our customers’s names. But learning the kids’ names goes even further. We treat them as very important people, because they are! We are planting seeds of popcorn, business seeds, every time we hand them a sticker with their name on it and learn their names. They love us for it, and we love them.