September 22, 2014

Entrepreneur Spotlight – CrunchDaddy Popcorn

popcorn businessWhen I was in graduate school I had to take some classes that went from 6 – 9p.  As a reward for staying awake through fun classes with titles like ‘Money Markets & The Fed,’ I used to make myself some popcorn to munch on during class.*  My basic butter flavor was nothing in comparison to the popcorn flavor combinations of CrunchDaddy Popcorn.   It turns out, how Dan Bazis, CrunchDaddy’s main ‘Kernel’ got started in the food industry and what he’s done to get this business started and growing in the right direction is as interesting and unique as his flavors.

You started CrunchDaddy in 2011, what were you doing before that?
While the idea for starting CrunchDaddy Popcorn was formed several years ago, we officially opened for business on January 1, 2012.  Until October of 2013 I was employed full-time as a contractor in the Marine Chart Division at NOAA, working on the development and maintenance of our nation’s nautical charts.  I was employed there for about ten years.  Prior to that, my career work had mainly been in TV and radio production, most recently for CNN in Atlanta where I worked as a technical director.

Where did your love of popcorn come from?
I owe that to my brother, Mike, who is eleven years older than I am.  My earliest memories are of him cooking popcorn on the stove for the family (there was no microwave popcorn back then!).  We would season it with a variety of spices and even parmigiano cheese. We consumed loads of popcorn as a family.

Making popcorn at home versus making it for customers takes a fair amount of skill due, in part, to the perishability and fragility of the product.  How much testing did you do before you felt confident starting this business?
I was certainly concerned with those issues, but mostly in regards to the shelf life of the caramelized products.  I knew that fresh popcorn small businesspopcorn had to be kept air tight (or go stale within a short period of time), but wondered how well the caramelized flavors would fare and what kind of packaging would be required in order to keep them fresh.  Along the way I had to learn more about the science of candy making, the various “crack” stages of sugar and how much butter I could or should use in order to make a consistent product that would hold up for weeks or months in a sealed package.  The testing of each recipe required setting aside a portion of each new product in a sealed container, only opening it to test the quality and monitor changes over several weeks.

Perhaps the most important aspect to the product tasting was having friends and coworkers taste and evaluate each product… and they were perfectly cooperative in handling that and giving me their honest feedback!  They sent me back to the kitchen numerous times to rework a recipe that wasn’t quite ready for prime time… and several of my flavor ideas were quickly set aside in favor of ones that worked better. We don’t often talk about the ideas that flopped, but that’s a natural process in the development of any business.

In addition to testing, what else did you do to prepare to get started?
Until a few months prior to opening, I had the notion that everything had to be “perfect” and every possible contingency accounted for in order to open the business.  During the planning phase, you want to know exactly how orders will be processed and shipped, what size containers and boxes you will use, what shippers you will use, how everything will be labeled, etc.  The truth is that there are many things that you can only learn by doing and 1001 minute details that can not and will not be imagined nor dealt with until they arise.

During the months of planning I would frequently email a friend and fellow entrepreneur about the latest website widget I had found or some other business tool that I thought would be helpful to me. Inevitably his response would be, “That’s great. When are you going to make some popcorn?”

While there is obviously a time and place for prudent planning and forethought in opening a business, experience is the best teacher.

Jumping forward, you’re now in your 3rd year of business.  How has the business evolved in ways that you weren’t perhaps anticipating?
Initially I thought that I would be able to offer my products to local retailers within a few months of opening the website. However, that goal was far off the mark, as I only found time to run the wholesale side of my business after leaving my full-time job in October of 2013. All things happen for a reason and I believe that I needed the food production and kitchen management experience in order to do it right, as well as many more hours in my day.

I am continually amazed at the volume of popcorn that has to be popped and caramelized in order to meet the demand of on-line sales and wholesale, especially during the holiday seasons, which are absolutely insane for us.  Prior to owning industrial poppers and caramel cookers, I didn’t envision the work that it would take to keep things running on schedule.

Creating an efficient shipping operation has been an evolution unto itself.  A new business has few requirements and shipping a handful of orders each month is a small burden through PayPal, but the logistics of shipping thousands of orders is one of those necessary tasks to work out as the sales volume increases.

Sadly, most small businesses don’t make it past the second year according to the small business administration.  What do you attribute to your being able to successfully pass that milestone?   What lessons have you learned along the way?
small food businessI was fortunate and blessed to have maintained a full-time job at a decent salary during the first 20 months that I was in business. My goal was to build the sales volume to the point where I could comfortably manage the transition from being employed full-time to running CrunchDaddy Popcorn full-time.

I believed from the very start that excellent customer service must be foundational to the company and everyone involved. Mistakes will happen and some level of customer dissatisfaction is inevitable, but these issues must be handled swiftly and to the complete satisfaction of the customer.  Thus far I am proud of our reputation for excellent customer service and I believe that this aspect has greatly helped with our survival thus far.

Aside from a few small loans from friends and family, my business has been “bootstrapped” through reinvesting company profits back into the company in order to purchase the equipment and supplies that are needed.  I have never sought nor desired bank financing, but rather have chosen to grow the company gradually and in a manageable way.

Most important is the will and desire to succeed in your business, which, in my case, would not have been possible without the constant and unwavering support of my family, my friends and our customers who believe in me and the products.

What types of marketing do you do to support the business?  What are your ‘go-to’ marketing tools?
We have been active on social media and our blog since well before CrunchDaddy Popcorn opened for business, as we wanted to let friends, family and potential customers witness the development of the company and brand from the ground up.

Thus far, Facebook has been our greatest driver of business and we participate on Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram to a lesser extent.

Aside from making delicious and interesting popcorn flavors, our marketing plan from the very beginning was to make products that are worth talking about, sharing and giving as gifts.  There are over 200 other popcorn companies in the U.S., so in order to stand out and be successful, we chose to make “Popcorn Unusual”™ with the hope that our customers would do exactly as they have done, which is talk about it and share it on social media. Nothing makes us happier than to receive glowing comments and reviews from customers who are raving about the unique and unexpectedly tasty products that they received. To us, that is organic marketing.

You’ve developed some pretty unique flavor combinations for your popcorn.  How do you come up with new combinations?  Do you do any type of testing to determine if certain flavors will work with your customers?  What are your most popular flavors?  Have you had any flavors flop?
Flavor development is a tricky thing and not a linear process. Thanks to being from a family of foodies, I have a decent culinary artisan specialty food businessbackground and lifelong appreciation of good cooking.

Our world is incredibly rich in spices, nuts, cheeses and other whole ingredients that are a wonderful compliment to popcorn. Any flavor developed by CrunchDaddy must either be original or offer some kind of twist or improvement on an established flavor of popcorn.  We don’t sell a plain caramel or plain cheese popcorn. Artificial flavorings, colors, chemicals and fake compound “chocolate” are never used in our family’s kitchens and thus have no place in our products. In my humble opinion, foods like Buffalo wings, dill pickles, ranch dressing and pepperoni pizza are best enjoyed in their natural state, but not on our popcorn.  Sprinkling a bulk powdered flavoring mix on popcorn is a great way to produce a mediocre product. Our customers deserve and expect more than that.

The development of any new flavor starts with one of dozens of flavor ideas that I have recorded on my secret list of flavor ideas that I have been compiling for several years.  If the flavor involves caramel, I develop a unique caramel recipe for that new flavor, as each caramelized variety of CrunchDaddy Popcorn is made with a slightly different caramel to match the character of the finished product. One recipe of caramel does not fit all!

Product testing always involves sampling the popcorn to a variety of friends, family members and local customers who are willing to share honest feedback.  As a small company it is easy for me to test the market with a new flavor without a great deal of risk.  Numerous flavors have been introduced and phased out as we’ve seen fit, if only to make room for new flavors.

Our most popular flavor had been Maple & Bacon Crunch, which was recently replaced by Bourbon & Bacon Crunch, which has taken off like wildfire!  Smokey Cheddar Crunch and our Caramel & Peanut Crunch have also been very popular of late.

As for flavor flops? I have certainly experimented with some flavor ideas that did not work well… Actually, they failed miserably, but thankfully they bit the dust well before they could ever be introduced to our customers! Thus far we have not had any flops in our on-line offerings, but we have phased out flavors that did not sell as well as others.

You mentioned that you were hoping to start this business to break out of the 9-5 grind.  Entrepreneurship tends to be a 9-9 gig!  Are you still happy you made the transition?
I’m thrilled to be free of the 9-5 grind in a stuffy federal office cubicle, but I humbly admit that it has been a tremendous challenge to step-up my game and learn to meet the demands of a growing business.  As you know, the work is “never” done. There’s always an email to answer, social media to manage, products to order, vendors to visit and product tastings to conduct. Beyond that we need to manage our personal relationships and tend to our physical and spiritual needs as well, as we can’t allow our business to consume our lives and make us miserable.  I thrive on challenge and the ever-evolving demands of the business, so I’m loving it!

What’s next for CrunchDaddy?
As any food retailer in the gift business will tell you… While it is only August (as of this writing), we are already focused on the upcoming holiday season and how we will meet customer demand both on-line and on the wholesale side.  We are currently working on potential deals with supermarket chains in our local area and hope to have several of our products available for distribution to them in the near future.  Meanwhile, we continue to pursue more wholesale customers in the Baltimore/Washington area and look for more ways to introduce our products to their customers. Slow and steady wins the race, so we are happy to make new friends and customers one at a time!

Interested in learning more about CrunchDaddy?  Click here to visit the company’s website or here for their Facebook page.

*In all fairness, my Money Markets & The Fed class actually turned out to be really interesting despite the undesirable class timeframe.

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