Fort Collins, Colorado
Industry: Food & Beverage
Products: Snack foods
Founders Tim and Elizabeth Solley and Heather and Geoff McQueen are tempting the taste buds of Colorado's consumers with their company's internationally-inspired gourmet popcorn flavors.
Chili Cheese Mac Attack, Chipotle Bacon Barbeque, Sea Salt Caramel, Sesame Ginger, Walnut Fudge Brownie, Jalapeno Bacon, Fear the Reaper, Sriracha Tikka Masala, Thai Coconut Green Curry, and Pumpkin Cheesecake. This impressive list is merely a small representation of the hundreds of mouth-watering flavors with which Rebel Popcorn's foodie founders have coated their increasingly popular crunchy kernels -- and they're always coming up with more.
"We really like international foods," says Tim Solley. "That's why we pretty much have every continent except Antarctica represented in our flavor lineup. We have African, South American, Hawaiian, Thai, Indian, and others in our world kitchen, and we lose track of how many we've actually done because we invent new ones so frequently." Elizabeth, Solley's wife, "has invented two or three new flavors just since last week," and visitors to the Fort Collins tasting room can expect to find a randomly rotating selection of 40 to 50 different varieties to savor every time they visit.
While inspiration has always been plentiful, money hasn't been -- through that's by choice. "We didn't want to come in with a big investor and throw a bunch of money at our idea," Solley explains. "We all felt very strongly about this so we've been completely self-funded from the get-go. This can be a little tough at times, but it has also allowed us to grow organically."
Until about four months ago, in fact, the couples and their staff were still using the two countertop air poppers and tiny caramelizer they started with. This meant popping and coating only nine or ten bags at a time, despite a dramatic increase in demand when they opened their Fort Collins tasting room and 450-square-foot kitchen in Oct. 2015. They put $11,000 into the business over the summer to purchase a larger popper and caramelizer.
"The growth has been astronomical," Solley says. "For example, this Christmas holiday season -- which starts for us mid-November and runs through Christmas day -- we'll likely sell 500 to 700 percent more popcorn that we did this time last year and have to run production 20 hours a day to keep up with demand." He estimates the company will have sold about 100,000 gallons of popcorn -- 40 percent savory flavors and 60 percent sweet -- between Halloween 2015 and the end of 2016.
Challenges: Solley says the biggest challenge they face is growing the business while still learning to navigate the industry. "None of us have backgrounds in this stuff," he explains. While Elizabeth and Heather were stay-at-home moms until their youngest children entered kindergarten last year, Tim and Geoff have backgrounds in software engineering and choir tour/convention organization, respectively. "We're figuring out everything as we go, just like we figured out how to make the product in the first place," he adds. From operating a retail space, to scaling up production, to working with wholesale accounts, "None of this is stuff we've ever done before."
Opportunities: "Growth in the wholesale market is our current big opportunity," says Solley. "Unlike our store, it isn't affected by seasonal variations. People who are buying our popcorn on impulse because they're at a brewery or see it at the store do so all year long, and that helps us get through the slower times at our store." The team is currently working with about 60 wholesale accounts -- including Colorado breweries, distilleries, wine-tasting rooms and a number of Ace Hardware stores -- with "more coming in every day."
Needs: "I'd be happy with being able to keep up with our growth with the right production processes," Solley muses. At present, they still have to package their product by hand -- a time-consuming process that makes larger wholesale accounts difficult. "We buy blank poly bags and have to apply printed stickers to each one by hand," he says. "We hand-scoop the finished popcorn out of big bins and into the poly bags before running them through our industrial sealer. This process is very slow, and we could really use some packaging equipment like an automated scale with a chute and a foot pedal that would allow someone to easily package several hundred bags an hour. That's really our next big step, along with some kind of bigger production space."