Pop-Pop's serves as a small business incubator

Last Thursday, May 19, was a quiet day in Midland.  

It was another gorgeous spring day as folks went about their business and businesses, large and small,  did likewise.  Dow’s stock value struggled along with many others.  Folks mowed lawns, picked up kids from school, shopped and such.  Midland Public  Schools had just two more weeks before summer break.   

It  was decidedly not a quiet day at 136 and 144  Ashman Circle where “business incubating” was humming in two adjacent buildings, between Mid-Town Pawn and Stranded Yarn and Coffee.   
Gina Willman making dough for Dow's order of 2,800 cookies for its 125th anniversary celebration this week.
Kimberlee Owens and two employees at Enjoy Bakery were preparing about 2,800 decorated cookies as part of a celebration for Dow’s 125th anniversary this week. That’s in addition to cookies, cupcakes, cinnamon rolls, scones and more ready for sale in the store, or as Owens says “Sweet, fun and sugary pastries – but not French style.”  

Next door at 136 and back in the commercial kitchen, Patricia McFarland of Pop-Pops was teaching two new employees, both college students, how to “coat” their air-popped popcorn with caramel.  As she did so, her husband and co-owner, Gene McFarland spoke with a Catalyst Midland reporter about the popcorn business and the incubator model of birthing, supporting and growing new businesses.

And at 134 and the rear of Pops’ building, Andrew and Stephanie Eaves were busy stocking the front showroom and tending to the freeze-dry machines that render perishables -- strawberries, blueberries, ice cream,  popular candies, vegetables and more – to a sealed shelf  life of one year.  With more advanced and costly packaging, a 25-year shelf life is possible. But for now, clients seem just fine with one year.  

Stephanie and Andrew Eaves in the sales area of Astro-Snacks, 134 Ashman Circle.
Indeed, a busy place. But such is the dream – and reward – of the McFarlands and their passion to help new business thrive by offering affordable rent and always-free guidance and advice. The Eaves’ Astro-Snacks ls their current and fifth tenant. 

The McFarlands signed a land contract to buy the  2,200 square feet building in December 2012.  It had been a uniform store. “We did a lot of dickering and dealing” she recalls. “The owner has been more than gracious to us through it all.”

“We had been looking for our own space for a couple of years, “ he says., “But it had to be workable, space wise, and affordable.  The idea was to rent somewhere, not necessarily on the Circle.”  The McFarlands found rent at other locations unaffordable.  Also,  they were not set on what to offer -- although popcorn was on the short list.  Popcorn?  And air-popped at that? Yes!

The genesis of this “popcorn thing,” he says, began with a passion for peanut butter flavored popcorn that Mrs. McFarland made frequently for the family. “It was so good and gooey,” he says. The idea soon came that it would be fun to sell it at the Midland Area Farmers Market when the market was held near the Tridge.

They did so, and successfully.  Now, a “real store” came to their mind and soon they bought their current location on  Ashman Circle and began work on remodeling and creating the kitchen along with the necessary equipment.  The first batches were made with a conventional oil popper that was salvaged from an unused wagon popper.  The wagon was discarded and the McFarlands sold packaged popcorn as a fund raiser for youth groups. 

Looking for a competitive advantage and a healthier product (because it pops with hot air, rather than oil), the McFarlands searched for an affordable air popper, a technology introduced in the 1970s.“We had a ‘hot lead’ on one,’ McFarland recalls “but we were short of the $375 of the $395 asking price.   So, we went to Meijer’s and bought an air popper for $20.”The McFarlands would soon learn acquiring an affordable popper was the easy part.  

Gene and Patricia McFarland in the sales area of their shop, Pop-Pop’s Gourmet Popcorn.
The tough part was developing a healthy way to add flavors to their air-popped corn. Major players in this business, he says, use high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a glaze on the popped corn, serving as a “glue” for flavors.  HFCS is widely known to cause serious health problems.

Looking for a healthier “glue,” they opted for a spritz of palm-coconut oils.  It is tasteless and provides adhesion needed for the popped corn.  Research suggests it is far healthier than the use of HFSC for this purpose.  

“Poppi” is the brand name of the new popper the McFarlands acquired, retiring the $20 Meijer popper. It is made by C. Cretors and Company of Wood Dale, Ill.  The company specializes in popping machines and other concessions equipment.  It was founded in 1895 and recognized for its first president inventing the first large-scale popcorn machine to popcorn in oil (thank you, Wikipedia). 

“Poppi” pops 10 ounces of corn in about two and one-half minutes,  McFarland says, adding a new machine with greater capacity is already in place and awaiting a venting hood. They purchase popping corn in 50-pound bags from Zastrow Popcorn and Supply in Hemlock. Air-popped corn is now available in some 35-40 varieties at the store. Not all varieties are always in stock.  
Creation Coffee has grown to three locations including 5032 Eastman Ave. in Midland.
The McFarland’s journey from popcorn people to helping other small businesses began several years ago when Mrs. McFarland offered Heirloom Coffee a place to set up shop, roasting coffee beans in various blends.  The company set up in the 500-square-feet back entrance store front – and found success, Mrs. McFarland notes. “They were here, with us, for 18 months and then moved to a larger facility.” Now, it is an even larger location, known as Creation Coffee,  5023 Eastman Ave, Midland

Smart House followed.  Its owners  roasted seeds to create soaps and lotions; however, the McFarland’s commercial kitchen – a huge bonus for some renters – was not necessary and Mrs. McFarland says the business now operates from a residence.

Belle’s Bakery spent one year with the McFarlands and found the kitchen critical to its operation.  It too, left after one year to locate at the former U.S. Coney & Cone, 601 S. Saginaw Rd. It is now a home-based ‘cakery’ offering custom cakes and confections.  

Next came Enjoy Bakery and it needed the commercial kitchen.  After about one year in the McFarland building, it moved next door, renovating  the former Lazeez International Indian Restaurant.  

Enjoy, like others, had its start at the Farmers Market.  “Mom and I started this business before the pandemic at the Market.  We made homemade cinnamon rolls, chocolate chips and such. We did that for  one year and then we began to think maybe we could do more.”

Dean Bard displays some of the pastries available at Enjoy Bakery, 144 Ashman Circle.
“We spent every time we were out looking for what was available – or might be.  We drove behind Circe Plaza and noticed that little, tiny space.  We called the McFarlands, looked at it – it was exactly what we needed and went from there, “ Kimberlee Owens recalls.  

“What prompted us to get a bigger location was  that we were expanding at a rate we could not expand our product line without more space.  Our staff was small, Mom, me and a couple others.  Sticking four to five people in a micro kitchen is not good. We opened the new location in November 2021.”

The “little, tiny space” is working great now for Astro-Snacks owners.  The front sales area and kitchen/workspace are about equally divided at 250 square feet each.  And it is a dream for Andrew Eaves who says he always wanted to open a candy shop.

The Eaves also began selling freeze-dried candies at the Farmers Market.  Things were good and another freeze-dry machine was purchased. But as all this was happening, Andrew was growing weary of his workload as an extrusion operator of medical grade tubing. 
Andrew Eaves checking almost “done” orange slices and grapes.
“Ninety percent of my time was spent working mandatory 12-hour shifts or on call, waiting to report to work.  It was overwhelming.  Stephanie and I were trying to raise a family.” The couple now has a four-year-old daughter and another child on the way.  Stephanie had worked at the registration desk at Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw.

Andrew Eaves quit his job last August and immediately got to work to expand his nascent business and still have a life at home.  He said the McFarlands reached out to him – and they signed on – the fifth business was to start in this “tiny space.”  Stephanie is modest about her role, “I’m just here for moral support,” she says, with a smile.

The freeze-dry machines the Eaves use are about the size of a vertical 12-bottle wine cooler. Inside are shelves, close together. Objects are carefully set on these shelves, not touching each other and the process begins.  It is not quick. Time-in-machine depends on how much moisture is in the item, for example:

Ice cream, cheesecake and lemon bars--24 hours.  

Produce – 29 to 90 hours:  String beans, broccoli, cauliflower, raspberries, strawberries, citrus, corn, carrots and peas – and more.

Candy – 4 to 12 hours.  These include Skittles (original and sour) Milk Duds, Charleston Chews (vanilla, chocolate and strawberry) – all told about 40 different candies.
A label on vacuum packs identifies key processing elements, including date of processing and on which machine.
Each Monday they shop for still good but on sale produce from local stores.  Some candies are purchased wholesale, others at retail price. Snack packs sell from $4-$6 when purchased at the store, larger sizes are also available.  Astro-Snacks are available at other venues in the  Midland Mall, Merrill and Saginaw (check website, above, for details).
The store opened on Feb. 2 this year, or 2-2-22, which is pretty cool, he says. And how are things going?  “We are happy and optimistic.  I am sure we will grow – it’s a matter of time,” he says.   

Pat McFarland is still almost giddy of what has happened since the initial search for a place to incubate.  “Of all the locations we looked at, and we looked at a lot, this is the best –  I love our little part of the Circle – it’s becoming a ‘confectioners alley.’’”


Read more articles by Ed Hutchison.

Journalism, teaching journalism and gardening are passions that continue to delight Ed Hutchison, a Midland native and resident for most of his life. He is the author of the book “Digging in the Dirt …Friendly Tips for the Gardener in All of Us” and hundreds of newspaper-published garden columns.   He has worked at The Saginaw News and  Dow Corning Corporation and taught at Delta College and Central Michigan University.