Road-blocks, Schmoad-blocks: Just Keep Moving

“You’re gonna have to have hot and cold water, under pressure, on that thing,” the inspector said. 

He didn’t actually say it out loud; he said it in an email, and it was more legaleesee than that, but you get the gist. It was another road block in a road with more holes and barriers than pavement. It looked as if we were once again off the road and in the ditch…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll start at the beginning…

“I want a little popcorn cart that’s cute,” Paysh said.

“Okay?” I said, distracted by something on my phone, and not completely awake, although I’d been up for a couple hours writing. We were sitting in the back room eating breakfast.

“Did you even hear what I said?” she asked.

“Of course,” I said without looking up. Then I felt the heat on my face. You know what I mean: the heat from your significant when you aren’t really paying attention and they’re boring a hole in the side of your head with heat-vision.

I removed my head from my phone. I even put it down. “Sorry,” I said. “What?”

Paysh shook her head. “I said, I want to run a little popcorn cart and sell popcorn.”

“Cool,” I smiled. “Why?”

“Because popcorn makes everyone happy, unlike my job…”

Paysh works for a major bank. Can’t say much about it, except that she manages real estate for trust fund babies, most of which have never had a real job in their life, and some of whom are clinically insane. Most of them are also jerks, and that’s putting it mildly. I guess I did say a lot. At least I left out the names to protect the guilty.

I’m a writer with too much formal education and a work history akin to a sawed off shotgun blast. It’s all over the place. If you can name it, and it pays next to nothing, I’ve probably done it.

For the last 6 years, I’ve also been the manager of our neighborhood farmers market, the West Side Farmers Market. As a result, I’ve seen a lot of vendors. As Paysh described her little popcorn cart, I could envision it sitting at the market. I could smell it, too. It would be the perfect addition.

“Popcorn makes me happy, that’s for sure,” I said. We eat a lot of popcorn at our house. 

“Do you think it could make enough money, eventually, to retire on?” she asked.

“Maybe,” I said. I didn’t really know, but my mind was already working on it, calculating and imagining standing on a street corner, or at the market, selling bags of popcorn. “Why not?” That’s my standard response. I’m a gambler. Not really, but I will take a calculated risk long before most people.

“I want to call it Payshee’s Popcorn,” she said.

It was a brilliant name, and I’m good at naming stuff. It also had alliteration and a built in story. Aunt Payshee is what her nieces call her. And everyone in the family loves her popcorn.

And that’s how Payshee’s Popcorn began, a conversation over breakfast one morning.

I immediately began researching popcorn carts on ‘the Google’, and things like ‘street food vending.’ That’s when I ran into this crazy, hillbilly dude in Tennessee who claimed, “hot dogs saved my life.” 

What? I thought. It was a good title for a book, so I grabbed it. I read it. And it blew the back of my f’n head off! I almost wanted to abandon popcorn for hot dogs. But I didn’t. I know  focus is the key to success. Not that I’ve had lot of the S-word, but I’ve read a lot of books about it, which, of course, makes me an expert.

I read Ben Wilson’s book a few times, to mine it for anything I could apply to our concept, and there was plenty. The first thing that hit me was Ben Wilson’s success in his first year: over $100k in profit. Holy Shite! We might actually be able to make enough to retire on at that rate! It was just enough inspiration to fuel me to keep working on the idea.

Payshee and I continued to discuss the popcorn cart, and started planning.

From our discussions emerged the concept of an old fashioned, popcorn cart or trailer unit we would pull behind our car, detach, and sell popcorn on street corners, at the farmers market, the breweries, etc.

There were immediate questions:

How would we power the machine? Drop cords? Generator? Propane or something?
Where would we sell? At the farmers market, for sure. Downtown Saint Paul?

“I want to create different flavors and toss them individually, too,” she said. 

“Hmmm,” I said, “That might be logistically challenging.” I could already see that a cart might be too small for the process of tossing individual bags of flavored popcorn quickly enough to make a profit. 

It’s something my brain does, naturally, break down processes, looking for inefficiencies and snags. I don’t know where I learned it. Certainly not in school, I’m an historian by training. Most likely I learned it from my mother, who is a natural-born process engineer.

“Let’s do it!’ I said. 

“But how?”

“How doesn’t matter,” I said. “We’ll figure it out. Other people have sold popcorn. If they can do it, so can we.” 

How is the first real roadblock people get hung up on, and it’s the one that kills most dreams before they leave the breakfast table. I knew better. “Let’s just commit to doing it. The rest we’ll figure out on the way.”

So we continued.

One of Payshee’s goals was to have as low a carbon footprint as possible. Our car is a hybrid, so that helped. But we learned the next day we couldn’t put a towing package on it. 

Damn! Road-block number one.

“Should we find a hybrid truck to pull the cart?” she asked.

So we drove out to a dealer, some miles from our house to look at a used hybrid pickup truck. But we really didn’t like it. Over dinner at a crappy pizza place near the dealership, we continued to brainstorm.

“Let’s think outside the box,” I suggested. “We want something electric, or hybrid. What if we put the cart, itself, on the back of a golf cart?”

For months we pursued that route. We weren’t sure if the cart would be legal on the streets of St. Paul. After months of waiting, we sat down in city hall with our council person, Rebecca, and a handful of other city bureaucrats, only to have the idea shot down. 

They didn’t shoot it down, outright, of course. Bureaucrats, when face to face, rarely do that. Instead they told us we could apply for a variance from the codes, but that might take some time, more time than we wanted to give to it. We wanted to get to popping and selling corn! It was already March at this point, and time was running short to get the whole thing built and ready for the opening of the farmers market season in June.

We went home, bruised, but not beaten. 

“Damn,” I cursed. I used a few other words, too. “Now what?”

We spent the rest of the day looking for some kind of electric, street legal vehicle we could put the popcorn cart on, or pull it behind. We had already looked at three-wheeled, electric scooters, but they weren’t the most practical. They weren’t really big enough to hold what we needed them to hold, and you could only have one person on it. Then Paysh found NEVs: neighborhood electric vehicles. We perused Cushmans for about an hour, then she stumbled upon the flatbed version of Polaris’s GEMs. (See the photos)

Long story, probably longer, we found a dealer in the Twin Cities, drove out there and gave it a spin around their block. We loved it, but not the $14,500 price tag. So I asked the salesman, Travis, the obvious question, “We love it, but do you ever get any used ones? I’d rather not pay for new.”

“Actually,” Travis said, “I know of two of them. The Minnesota Vikings have been trying to sell them back to us for months. They want like $5000 a piece.”

I couldn’t believe he was telling me his price. But Travis had been totally up front and down to earth the entire time. Super nice guy.

“Hell, I’ll give you $8000 for one of them!” I said right there and then.

“Nah,” he said. “We really don’t want to mess with them, but I’ll give you their number and you can make a deal with them yourself.”

And we did. In fact, we ended up buying both of them for $10,000. They still had green confetti on them from the Super Bowl!

Our plan was to sell one of them for $10k and basically get the other one for free! It didn’t really work out that way. We sold it for just over $5000, so with tags and taxes, we actually lost a bit of money on the one we sold, but we got the other one for a little over $5000, still way cheaper than 14k. 

I went to work drawing out a design for the back of the truck for our Dept of Ag Plan Review. The basic idea was the look of an old fashioned popcorn trailer/cart with a standard popcorn machine on the back. 

Again, long story, longer.

The Dept of Ag rejected the plan. Not entirely mind ya, but they told us we’d have to have a four chambered sink with hot and cold running water, under pressure. There simply wasn’t enough room on the back of our truck to put all of that and still be able to pop popcorn. And because our plan was to put it all on the truck, it was considered a Mobile Food Unit, which did actually require all that stuff.

I read the codes, over and over again. Our concept was a brand new idea, and bureaucrats hate things that don’t fit into their little check boxes; instead, they usually kibosh them, or mix n match the codebook to make up new regulations to discourage you from doing it.

We were stuck and at this point, it was April or May, not long before the opening of the farmers market where we planned to debut Payshee’s Popcorn. I still had to build whatever was gonna go on the back of the truck. It looked as if our plan was dead in the water. Then my boss, Molly, the Executive Director of the farmers market, suggested we do it under the Minnesota Cottage Food Law—something I (as manager of the market) should have already thought of. I was so shoulders deep into the idea I couldn’t think straight. Thankfully, other people could.

Under that law, which most states have—though I’m sure they vary greatly—we could pop the corn at home, pre-bag it, and sell it without a license, as long as we followed safe food handling guidelines and all that. 

We quickly decided that to be in business was more important than how we were in business. At least we’d be starting and selling some popcorn.

So we did it! Within a day, Payshee had her Cottage Food certificate from the state, we got some insurance from the Minnesota Farmers market association, and we were off!

For the last three years, we’ve been popping and selling corn under the Cottage Food Law. But our goal has always been to pop it live at events. The scent of pop corn and the sound of it, are big draws for sales. But we couldn’t do that under the Cottage Food Law. 

What we learned doing it that way, however, is that our machine, even though it is more than twice as large as most home units, would never keep up with demand at a live event. It simply cannot pop enough corn, fast enough. 

I know this because I kept very detailed records of each popping, exactly how much our machine and process can produce, on average: 1 bag every 3 minutes; that’s 20 bags/hour. And that’s if two or three people are working it. At the farmers market, Payshee would be alone most of the time, since I was the manager of the market. 

At best, she might actually produce 10 bags/hour, and that would be difficult if she were also taking money, giving out samples, etc. The market is only open for 4 hours, so that would have been only 40 potential sales, max. Certainly not enough to retire on.

Under the cottage food law, we could make as much as we had time to make, ahead of time at home, sometimes upwards of 100, and then just take money at the market, hand over fist as she handed them out.

The most we ever sold at the farmers market was probably about 70. We’ve sold more at our local brewery: as much as 119 bags, but most of the time it was more like 40-50. We sold them at $5-6 bag, for just under a gallon of popcorn.

In the end, the Dept of Ag actually did us a massive favor by throwing a road-block at our plan. If they had approved the original design, we would have built a ‘cart/truck’ that would have failed to produce enough popcorn to be profitable! So, thank you, Dept of Ag for being a pain in our ass. 

This became apparent during our first year of operation, I would say within a month or so, I knew the original plan was defunct and not a good idea. So I went looking for a machine that would produce a sheeep-ton of popcorn in a short period of time. I looked to the only ones I thought might do the job: kettle corn rigs. You know, the huge witch kettles you see at the state fair. 

And that’s when I found the Master of Kettle Corn, the Man on the Silver Mountain: Greg Sweet, and his amazing family.

But that’s a story for another day…