As the new decade dawned, Detroit Popcorn Co. was poised for a record year. So, too, was Ken E. Harris, managing director and CEO of The Harris Financial Group in Pontiac.
As separate companies owned by different principals, the two enterprises were like sovereign countries. And yet, as strange as life can be at times, in 2020 Detroit Popcorn Co. was put up for sale.
“If you had told me at the beginning of 2020 that I would own Detroit Popcorn Co. before the year was out, I would have said that would be amazing. I do love popcorn, but buying the company wasn’t on my radar,” Harris says. “It wasn’t for sale. I wasn’t looking to buy it, and I had enough on my plate as it was.
“Usually I’m the one facilitating the purchase or sale of a company on behalf of my clients, so when a CPA called and told me about Detroit Popcorn, I thought it was another transaction to facilitate. But then the CPA said he thought it would be a good deal for me. We went through all of the due diligence and closed on the deal in early November. Now I’m the majority owner.”
In a lesson of how one bad move can close the door on an opportunity and open a window on another, Detroit Popcorn Co. was put up for sale after Evan Singer, who had owned the enterprise for a year and a half, posted a racially charged comment on Facebook.
Prior to that, David Farber owned the business. He originally acquired the business in 2005 from Robert Jasgur, who had owned it since 1970. At the time Jasgur bought Detroit Popcorn, it had annual sales of around $120,000 as a seasonal operation. Adding resources and products, Jasgur expanded it to a year-round enterprise, and by 2004 it had annual revenue of around $2.2 million. Farber retooled the business model further and set it up for growth, reaching more than $3 million in annual sales.
The company has its roots in 1923, when Greek immigrant Samuel B. Carmas opened a store near McGraw and 24th streets on Detroit’s west side. Carmas would also sell popcorn and other snacks on sidewalks outside fairs, expositions, and theaters.
Popcorn’s popularity was propelled by the growth of cities in the 1890s. The light snack was easy to make, produced an aromatic aroma to draw in customers, and was cheap to produce and purchase. As the movie industry blossomed in the 1920s, popcorn stands outside theaters were a common retail offering.
As movies became more popular, especially after the debut of sound in the late 1920s, many theater owners refused to sell popcorn inside their movie houses due to the mess it could create. But after witnessing how much outdoor snack vendors were taking in, popcorn-popping machines were set up behind refreshment stands inside theater lobbies.
Popcorn traces its modern roots to the Aztec culture in the 16th century, when it was used for food as well as decorating ceremonial ornaments, necklaces, and headdresses, especially among women. It also was offered up to their gods, like Tlaloc, who was said to bring rain and fertility. Archeologists have found the popped kernel actually goes back more than 4,000 years to the southern United States, based on cave explorations.
Today, Americans consume around 15 billion quarts of popcorn each year. The kernels, which are different from sweet and field corn, are mostly grown in the Midwest, primarily in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, and Ohio.
To set Detroit Popcorn up for growth, Harris says he and his partner, Reggie Kelley, a 26-year business consultant who now is COO of the confection enterprise, will expand nationally. “Reggie has great experience and understands plants and manufacturing operations,” says Harris, who is the company’s fifth owner. “We have a lot of runway in front of us.
“Right now we’re down three months (in sales) due to COVID-19, and we’re introducing ourselves to all of our customers. We’ll reignite those relationships lost due to the unfortunate incident on Facebook. In 2021, we plan to do between $3.5 million and $4 million in sales.”
The company will enter multiple markets in the next three years, including Chicago, Florida, California, Georgia, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and New York. “There’s a lot of Michiganders in those places, and Detroit has a very good name, and when you add popcorn it’s even better,” says Harris, who earned his MBA at Michigan State University and has more than 25 years of experience in entrepreneurship, finance, and business.
Detroit Popcorn distributes a complete line of snack foods, concession equipment, and supplies for popcorn, cotton candy, Sno-Kones, nachos, frozen drinks, corn dogs, candy apples, and more. Its machines are sold or rented for special events.
The company’s 32,000-square-foot facility along Telegraph Road in Redford Township consists of two buildings — a showroom, which is open to the public, and plant operations, where flavored popcorn, cotton candy, and syrups are made. It’s part of a six-building complex, which Harris plans to soon acquire. His commercial neighbor, K&M Marine, which operates from four buildings, will remain.
As a measure of goodwill, the company formed a partnership with Yesterday’s Negro League Baseball Players Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Milwaukee that’s committed to the preservation of, dedication to, and education about Negro League Baseball.
“We’ll continue to offer fundraising programs for schools, churches, and other organizations,” Harris says. “In addition, a percentage of our proceeds will go to the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. Whether it’s urban or suburban dwellings, it’s very important that we educate our children.”