ettle corn consists of just four ingredients: popcorn, sea salt, sugar, and corn oil. It’s also a simple recipe that led to the success of Angie’s Kettle Corn: family values. They have been at the core of Dan and Angie Bastian’s business since it began 10 years ago.
It all started when the Mankato couple was looking for a side venture in order to start a college fund for their two children. When Dan happened upon a Web site about running a business selling kettle corn—popcorn prepared in a kettle with salt and sugar for a distinctive sweet-and-salty flavor—it seemed like a perfect weekend activity. They’d buy a tent, a kettle, and the necessary ingredients, and travel to summer events around the Mankato area to make and sell the product.
“The first time we cooked it in our garage, we burned it,” Angie recalls. Later batches turned out much better. The Bastians started by selling outside the Rainbow Foods in their hometown and at various fairs and festivals. The Bastians’ children tagged along, wearing change belts and providing on-the-spot customer service. “Dan and I just felt like we wanted to have our children included in this so that they understood in real time how to take an idea and put it into action and do something successful,” Angie says.
The Bastians’ kettle corn was an instant hit, inspiring the couple to take their business further. During the summer of 2002, they got permission from the Minnesota Vikings to give each player and coach a free bag at the team’s preseason training camp in Mankato. Response was so good that the Vikings allowed the Bastians to sell their kettle corn outside the Metrodome on game days. Fans asked where they could buy the product during the off-season; soon, Angie’s Kettle Corn appeared on the shelves at Lunds and Byerly’s. With demand increasing, Dan quit his teaching job in 2003 to focus exclusively on the business.
Despite the early success, the Bastians faced challenges. To get a loan to build up their manufacturing operations, they had to guarantee it with every personal asset but Angie’s minivan. “If everything goes downhill, we can live in the minivan,” Angie recalls telling herself.
“I think just surviving the daily grind and not knowing where this thing is going and if there’s even a chance to establish a legitimate business you can live off of—I think that was my biggest mental challenge,” Dan says.
But it all seems to be paying off. While the Bastians used to pop 300 bags in four hours on a good day, their manufacturing facility can now produce 80,000 bags daily. Currently offered in three varieties, Angie’s Kettle Corn is carried nationwide by retailers including Target, Cub, and Kowalski’s. (Most of its sales are still in the Upper Midwest.) It’s also sold at the venues of the Vikings, Twins, Timberwolves, and Lynx. Angie’s Kettle Corn has grown by more than 3,000 percent within the past five years and become a multimillion-dollar company.
“What I learned is that we couldn’t have done it if we didn’t have the extended family around us,” says Angie, who was able to quit her job as a psychiatric nurse practitioner earlier this year. When she and Dan would go to demo their products, Dan’s parents would take care of the kids. When Dan’s brother Greg returned to the Twin Cities from Baltimore, he stepped in as CFO. And Dan’s father, after he retired from a 50-year career in banking, began making deliveries for Angie’s Kettle Corn and is still on the payroll.
Angie and Dan have sought to establish an atmosphere of trust, collaboration, and flexibility throughout their organization. If an employee’s child has a game or a school event, they will be the first to tell that person not to miss it. They respect that workers have family priorities that need to come first, says Steve Vuolo, an instructor in the marketing department at the University of St. Thomas’s Opus College of Business who has provided business consulting to the company since 2006.
Vuolo notes that a lot has changed within the past five years as the Bastians’ company has broadened its reach, but “what absolutely hasn’t changed is just the culture that they generate through just being very, very concerned with all their people and doing the right things for the right reasons,” he adds.
Vuolo calls Dan and Angie people with “very little ego.” While Angie, as president, manages the company’s marketing, public relations, and events efforts, CEO Dan oversees the operations and focuses on new distribution strategies. The result, Vuolo says: a careful, deliberate approach to growth.
As the pair has introduced new varieties to the marketplace, there’s been a major focus on quality. If a new flavor wasn’t perfect, they’d wait to launch until it was, Vuolo says. Dan and Angie have always been of the mindset: “We’re not going to put out something that is just OK. It has to be spectacular.”
As the Bastians have grown the business, they’ve focused primarily on the Midwest in order to ensure that demand doesn’t overwhelm their production capabilities. “It was controlled growth,” Vuolo says. “It wasn’t just throwing things against the wall and seeing what would stick.”
Although Dan and Angie’s busy days often include travel to introduce and promote their products, they remain strong supporters of their community. The Bastians support Mankato-area food shelves with donations, product, and employee time—and they are members of numerous business and civic associations.
Angie’s Kettle Corn now employs 130 full-timers, and the company still hires high school and college students to travel to events with a kettle and a tent each summer. The Bastians’ 15-year-old daughter, Aunikah, spent the summer assisting with the company’s marketing and promotional activities. But she aspires to be a photographer. And her brother, Tripp, hopes to become a professional golfer. So the family business might begin and end with Angie and Dan.
That prospect doesn’t seem to bother them, however. They remain focused on further building of the business. Up next are several new flavors, which will make their debut in early 2012, and securing broader distribution.
“We’d like to expand and just kind of connect the dots contiguously moving,” Angie Bastian says. “More and more areas of the country are becoming familiar with us.” But, she adds: “We’ve got a lot of geography to fill in.”