Kernel of an idea grows into family popcorn business under Michigan Cottage Food Law

This article is one of a series of stories about Michigan’s agricultural economy. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.  Other stories in this series can be found here.

When Gene and Patricia McFarland began selling gourmet popcorn in 2011, they used a small, hot-air popper and their oven to create sweet and savory popcorn flavors in their home kitchen. The popcorn was sold at farmer’s markets and events under Michigan’s Cottage Food Law. Today, they have a fully equipped, state-licensed kitchen located inside their Pop-Pop’s Gourmet Popcorn retail store in Midland, Mich. Their product is placed in seven locations throughout the region.

Gene and Pat didn’t set out to start a retail popcorn shop. The idea sprouted after a daughter said all she wanted for her birthday was Pat’s coveted peanut butter popcorn. Pat has always made gooey peanut butter popcorn for her family. The request from her daughter planted a corny idea of making popcorn to sell at farmer’s markets to bring in extra money.  Gene was working as a waiter and Pat had been laid-off from her job and was back in college to earn a bachelor’s degree. They were too young to retire, so finding a way to supplement income was necessary.

With an expensive oil-popping machine out of reach, a $20 hot-air popper was the couple’s first investment. Next, they invested hours of research and experimentation into ingredients and methods of coating air-popped popcorn. The name of the business came from a moniker that Gene’s children called his dad, “Pop-Pop.” Now, Gene’s grandchildren call him, “Pop-Pop.” The name was a natural fit for their new venture.

From Cottage Food Law to fully licensed business

Pop-Pop’s Gourmet Popcorn may not have had the opportunity to scale up their business if it weren’t for Michigan’s Cottage Food Law. The law, enacted in 2010, exempts producers of certain foods from the licensing and inspection requirements of the Michigan Food Law. A cottage food operation still must comply with other provisions of the Food Law and other laws and ordinances but gets a chance to test the waters with a small-scale business before jumping into a commercial kitchen and food license.

“The Cottage Food Law allows entrepreneurially-spirited individuals the opportunity to try out ideas without a large investment,” Pat explains.

People making non-potentially hazardous foods can produce them in their home kitchens for direct sale under the provisions of the Cottage Food Law. To qualify, they must sell less than $20,000 annually. The Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development maintains a list of which foods may be produced under the Cottage Food Law, such as fruit jams and jellies, breads, cookies, vinegars, and more. The foods that are allowed don’t require strict time and temperature control for safety. Cottage foods may be sold at farmers markets, roadside stands, or other direct markets, and carry a special label indicating the cottage food is produced in a non-inspected home kitchen.

Pat and Gene appreciate that the Cottage Food Law allowed them the freedom to research, develop their popcorn products, and market them from home on their own schedules. Using their existing home kitchen meant low start-up costs, little overhead, and minimal investment in equipment and supplies. As they grew, though, some limitations encouraged them to seek out Michigan Food Law licensing.

“The process to create our product grew too laborious with the limitations we faced,” Pat says. The $20 hot-air popper they used in their home kitchen couldn’t keep up with demand, so they decided it was time to go for licensing and a commercial kitchen. “This would enable increased production and decreased production time,” she says.

They also thought about some practical considerations that made continuing the home-based business difficult. Sometimes customers showed up unannounced to buy popcorn. “The liability of an accident if anyone fell down our front stairs was a major concern,” Pat says. “Also, unannounced customers brought other concerns with sequestering our dogs, being dressed, having a clean house and having product.”

The turning point of developing their business came at a time when the job market was not yielding productive work. The couple needed more than unreliable paychecks and Gene’s supplemental income. “We faced the decision to keep struggling with finding jobs or create our own place in the commercial market. We chose to move forward with preparing for a food license,” Pat says. “Our time, energy, space, equipment, access to customers, and ability to purchase ingredients at wholesale prices were scarce and limited.”

They find a major benefit of being licensed is being able to market their product however they choose, not being limited to only direct sales.

Handcrafted flavors

Pat and Gene are proud of their fresh and tasty, air-popped popcorn that keeps customers coming back. They specialize in handcrafted flavors made from scratch.

Customers pop in for free samples and leave with favorite flavors such as old-fashioned Caramel Corn or Cheddar, or get hooked on trendier treats like Chocolicious, Cheddar Blues, Pumpkin Spice and Mango Habanero. A frequent popper card offering a free bag after buying 12 is what Gene describes as “a 12-step addiction creation program.” “We encourage popcorn addiction,” Gene says cheerfully.

“It took a lot of research and experimentation to learn how to coat air-popped popcorn,” Pat says. Toying with flavors and researching to find the best ingredients is enjoyable for the couple. “We love to research and find what is being developed that might work with our goals and processes. 

Popping forward

The couple is working on relocating to a new retail location that better meets their needs and managing the business as it expands. “We sell our products mainly through our storefront and the farmers market, but also participate in events like festivals, craft shows, and ball games,” Pat says. “We have just ventured into the wholesale arena with our popcorn currently being sold in seven different locations.”

Most recently, two 7-Eleven stores in Bay City began carrying Pop-Pop’s Gourmet Popcorn. One location sold out in just two days. They also craft custom flavors and bags for weddings and other parties, and offer a fundraiser program. They are working on updating their website to allow for online sales.

“We believe in small business. We keep in mind that every large company started as one,” Pat says.

Working with customers is one of the best parts of the business. “While the growth is slow, we are so blessed to have wonderful people who enjoy our products,” Pat says. “They share their appreciation and critiques to help us grow. There are many who truly want to see us succeed because what we offer is not just popcorn. We love the freedom to sit and talk to customers on our own time schedule. Sometimes they come in and give us a hug, just because. And, we get to hug them in return.”

Small business ownership works for Pat and Gene. Case in point: staff meetings. “They take on a different appeal when you’re eating a bowl of ice cream in your robe and slippers discussing work topics,” Pat jokes.

Her advice to new food business owners? “The important things to do are to not give up and keep believing in their product,” Pat offers. “If an entrepreneur doesn’t believe in their product, they cannot expect anyone else to believe in it.”

When asked what they like best about owning their business, Pat says, “Being our own bosses.”

Gene interjects, “Pat’s the bossiest.”

“Am not,” Pat teases. “Get to work!”

The responsibility to make their venture successful is something Pat and Gene enjoy. “While the effort can be very challenging, tiring, and sometimes discouraging,” Pat explains, “we keep in mind that it’s our venture, our investment, and our lives. We have friends and family who volunteer to help us keep ‘popping.’ These factors keep us going forward.”

Pat warns other new business owners to be flexible. “What a person thinks their business will develop into is sometimes different from how public demand influences it to actually become,” she says.

For those interested in preparing and selling foods under Michigan’s Cottage Food Law, Michigan State University Extension offers an online Cottage Food Law Food Safety Training program. Funded largely by a Food Safety Education Fund grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, the training covers safe food production, packaging and labeling, storing, and transportation.

For a taste of Pat’s and Gene’s handcrafted popcorn flavors, visit Pop-Pop’s Gourmet Popcorn at 136 Ashman Circle, Midland. You can also find them on Facebook and their website.

Sue Stuever Battel is a homeschooling mother of four, a commercial maple syrup maker, daughter of dairy farmers, and a freelance agricultural writer born and raised in the Thumb of Michigan. She holds a bachelor of science in Agriculture and Natural Resources Communication from Michigan State University.
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