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Meet Minnesota's Reigning Queen of Pop

Salty, sweet and sublime, the kettle corn business is putting up eye-popping numbers . / Credit: Photo of Angie's stand at Minnesota Twins' stadium courtesy of Angie's...

Started as a side venture by Angie Bastian and her husband, Dan, to earn extra income for their children's college fund, Angie's Kettle Corn has expanded to become a snack food empire. Each day its facility in Mankato, Minn., pops out as many as 100,000 bags of kettle corn. Kettle corn is a popcorn permutation that's made by stirring freshly popped corn with a hint of pure cane sugar to produce a snack that's salty, crunchy and slightly sweet. The nation's growing appetite for this treat has made Angie Minnesota's Queen of Pop.

With annualized revenues expected to top $20 million this year, and 150 employees, the family-owned parent company, Angie's Artisan Treats, produces one of the fastest-growing snacks in the skyrocketing popcorn category. It's an impressive business debut for a couple who was introduced to kettle corn through online research and launched their enterprise with equipment purchased with a zero-interest credit card.

The genesis of the company was in 2001, when Angie was working as a nurse practitioner and Dan was teaching school. They wanted to start a part-time business to help pump up the college fund for their two children, Aunika and Tripp, who were then 5 and 3.

[Succession Planning Can Be Tricky Business for Family-Owned Firms]

Neither of the parent had a background in business, so they needed something that was simple and didn't require a lot of capital to be started, Angie told BusinessNewsDaily.

We could do that

Dan has been looking online at various part-time and franchise opportunities and came across an ad for kettle corn equipment.

Dan: "Hey, what do you think about kettle corn?"

Angie: "Sure, we could do that."

By the end of the week they had ordered their kettle corn equipment from a couple in Washington State, who also shared a recipe with them.

"It wasn't something we were aware of or knew anything about," Dan said.

But it was something they could get started on immediately and do on weekends and during the summer when Dan wasn't teaching.

The recipe for kettle corn they got with their first equipment has been tweaked by the couple over the years. What hasn't changed, though, is the emphasis on quality.

Picky about popcorn

"We were fortunate in that the people who sold us the equipment showed us the importance of using quality products and proper process," Angie said. "We were picky about the popcorn we used."

The Bastians began their company as an outdoor operation, traveling with their tent, kettle and propane tank to fairs and other outdoor events.

"Anyone that wanted us," Angie said. "We'd stir the product in the kettle and it would pop and we'd dump it into bags."

When they started out, they could produce 10 bags per batch, yielding 300 bags in four hours, a far cry from their daily production today. Today, they use a proprietary stirring process, but the product remains essentially handmade. Now, says Angie, the kettles do the stirring and they're able to produce 12-15 bags per batch.

"But we still make it by hand in small batches," she said.

The Bastians found that if they popped it, people would come. And they'd buy.

Scoring with the Vikings

"We created a following," Angie said. "We were going anywhere and everywhere and our product was really good. What we created is what we liked."

They moved their operation indoors in 2004 to manufacture year-round and become a wholesaler to retailers. The break that launched them into the popcorn major leagues came that same year when they had the opportunity to provide 120 bags to the Minnesota Vikings training camp held every year in Mankato. The raves were unanimous, and the Bastians were invited to set up their tent outside the Metrodome for every Vikings home game.

Angie's kettle corn was on its way. Even Martha Stewart became a booster. And a part-time endeavor became a full-time occupation for both Angie and Dan.

Angie's Kettle Corn was then picked up for distribution by the Lunds and Byerly's supermarket chains and the product began its geographic spread. Today Angie's products, which now include light and caramel varieties in addition to the original classic product, are available in all 50 states, carried by Target, Costco, Super Target, SuperValu-owned stores and Whole Foods, in addition to Lundys and Byerly's.  The company also has a thriving mail-order business.

The company rapidly outgrew its first indoor location in the bakery section of a grocery store. They then bought a small building, but outgrew that in a year and a half. Then in 2007, they moved into a  production facility they built to keep up with demand for the product.

It's like popping popcorn at home

"It's the same process as popping popcorn at home, just on a different scale," Dan said.

Angie's has particularly strong sales throughout the Midwest and the Northeast. And Chicago is a hot spot for their product.

"We do very well in Chicago," she said. "Chicago is kind of a popcorn town."

The swift growth of Angie's — sales soared 75-80 percent between 2010 and 2011 — was all due to word-of-mouth, in-store demonstrations and adoption as the official kettle corn by the Vikings  and  Minnesota's other professional sports teams, the Twins, Timberwolves and Lynx.

"We are word of mouth," Angie said. "We don't have a budget for advertising. All we knew was that if we got it into people's mouths, if they tasted it, we'd make a sale, so we did demos all the time."

The newest addition to the Angle's line is a purist's popcorn, Boomchickapop, made from popcorn, sunflower oil and sea salt. Launched this summer, it's non-GMO Project Verified. Branching out required some soul-searching, Angie said.

A purist's popcorn

"We started with kettle corn," she said. "And we had long discussions about whether we were going to stay pure with kettle corn. For us, it was a big decision to branch out into popcorn, which is what we did. We created a sub-brand called Boomchickapop, which is low-calorie, simply delicious popcorn. It's been a huge success for us and it's only been out there for two and a half months. And the volume and the interest and the brand position are pretty exciting for us. That's our first adventure outside of kettle corn."

They have no plans to stray outside their field of dreams and intend to remain independent and concentrate on popcorn for now.

"There's a lot of room to grow in popcorn for us," Angie said. "Popcorn is pretty hot."

"We're just trying to keep our heads down and focused," Dan added. "We're just focused on getting our brand out there now and growing."

The brand is currently being revised, including the packaging, which until now has had the Bastians' photos on the package.

"I can tell you, our kids are teenagers now and are embarrassed by the packaging," Angie said.

All in the family

Angie's Artisan Treats has been a joint labor of love for more than a decade now, but it has caused some ripples in the relationship, both Bastians said.

"It's a challenge," Angie said. "We have a great relationship and there is nothing that doesn't get said between us. When it's about work, we battle sometimes and it gets heated. But we're able to work through it. We just get some space from other when that happens and we come back when we're a little more reasonable and talk it through again."

"It's a process of learning to work with your spouse," Dan said. "Trust in each other's decisions and talking things through helps the business in a lot of ways."

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Ned Smith

Ned was senior writer at Sweeney Vesty, an international consulting firm, and was Vice President of communications for iQuest Analytics. Before that, he has been a web editor and managed the Internet and intranet sites for Citizens Communications. He began his journalism career as a police reporter with the Roanoke (Va.) Times, and was managing editor of American Way magazine and senior editor of Us. He was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and held a masters in journalism from the University of Arizona.

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