By Carol K. Dumas
Popcorn is as American as apple pie. It’s a ballpark staple, a movie theater must-have.
Dan Smith’s love affair with popcorn began when he was a boy and his large extended family summered in Ocean City, Maryland, strolling the boardwalk where vendors sold tins of popcorn. Years later, this childhood memory inspired Dan and his wife to create Smith Family Popcorn, which celebrated a year in business this past summer.
The Smiths’ business began humbly in their one-room Boston apartment, where Dan, an architect, and his wife Kim, a pediatric nurse, started making caramel popcorn to give to friends and families as gifts.
“We were at the age where we were getting invited to all kinds of parties and we got tired of bringing cheese and crackers,” Dan recalls.
“What about making caramel popcorn?” he asked Kim.
Making the popcorn was easy, coating it with caramel (made from scratch) was another story. “We didn’t realize how difficult it was,” Dan says.
The couple perfected the recipe and brought their caramel popcorn to their next housewarming party. It was a big hit. They started sending out small bags with Christmas cards and brought their popcorn to other parties.
“And things just snowballed from there,” Dan says. “People asked us to make it as corporate gifts and wedding favors.”
As their side business grew, a problem soon became clear. “We could make only a gallon at a time; it was the best we could do with the equipment we had, but it was taking forever! We had an order for 500 bags and it took us a week,” Dan recalls.
It was an entrepreneurial opportunity they couldn’t afford to pass up, although admittedly, he and Kim had good jobs in Boston. “It was a paradox of choice,” he says. “If I didn’t start my own business, would I regret not doing it? If I started the business, would I regret leaving my career? We were at a crossroads: do we do this or not?”
Building A Business
They decided to open a retail shop and researched what it would take. The fact that neither of them had ever managed a business wasn’t a concern.
“We built a foundation of knowledge,” Dan says. They researched popcorn making equipment, the best type of kernels to buy, permits needed and locations. “I also read books about business, goal setting, and researched best locations. We watched a lot of YouTube videos.”
Having both grown up in Sandwich, Dan and Kim knew Cape Cod’s tourist economy was a natural for a popcorn shop. They chose Hyannis, for its central location and by the end of 2017, they had bought a former gift shop on desirable Main Street, next door to the carousel in an area popular with families. Smith Family Popcorn would offer a variety of flavored popcorn, made in small batches, from the ordinary to the bizarre, with an online shop as well. Five percent of their profits would be given back to nonprofit organizations of their choice.
To save money (they were determined not to take out loans), they moved in with Dan’s parents in Sandwich on New Year’s Day 2018 and went to work renovating the space, with plans to open in May. Dan’s forte at the architectural firm had been computer graphics and virtual reality renderings of buildings. “I had the whole shop modeled out before we took down one wall.” A sign outside read ““Future home of Smith Family Popcorn.”
One hurdle they had to overcome was making their tried and true caramel recipe work with the equipment. “We burned many batches.”
Friday of Memorial Day weekend, 2018 Smith Family Popcorn opened its doors, staffed by Dan, Kim, Dan’s parents and his sister and brother-in-law. “I knew my family and friends liked it, but would strangers?” Dan wondered.
They did. The redolent aroma of popcorn drew in customers that busy first weekend. By Sunday, they’d run out of popcorn kernels and couldn’t get an overnight delivery from their supplier due to the holiday.
“Then I remembered this woman I spoke to when I was information-gathering for the business and gave her a call,” he says. “She was doing what we did on a smaller scale. She said she had a couple 25-pound bags I could buy from her, if I came and picked it up.”
Sunday night, Dan drove up to Waltham.
Making It Work
The Smiths made it through that first busy summer with a team of teenagers Dan recruited.
“The group we had was awesome and almost everyone came back this past summer,” Dan says.
Many popcorn shops, Dan says, offer three varieties: caramel, cheese and buttered. Smith Family Popcorn carries some 14 different kinds of popcorn available in three sizes including tins that can be refilled for a discount. “I wanted to be more creative than the three classic flavors, but still not have to offer every flavor.”
Most popular has been Sea Salt Caramel. Some unusual flavors include Tuscan Joy, flavored with extra virgin olive oil, basil and salt, Taco, White Cheddar Jalapeño as well as Birthday Cake, from the Boston apartment days. Dan’s favorite is Chesapeake, a nod to those childhood summers in Maryland, flavored with Old Bay Seasoning. Cape League Mix is a “better” Cracker Jack, made with lots of chopped peanuts. The Cape Baseball League receives 5 percent of the profits from sales of its namesake flavored popcorn. Five percent of the sales of other flavors benefit nonprofits Smith Family Popcorn chooses to highlight each month or so and the customer chooses which one his sale helps at checkout.
Holidays are opportunities to create themed flavors, like Chocolate Covered Strawberry on Valentine’s Day, a mint flavored popcorn on St. Patrick’s Day or a pumpkin spice for the fall.
The business has benefited from Open Streets, a Main Street merchants initiative that temporarily closes down car traffic for pedestrians. Smith Family Popcorn offered free samples of three of its flavors during the festival, finding new fans.
Running your own business means long hours and lots of stress, but Dan is happy about his decision to open Smith Family Popcorn. He is quick to admit he’s not the best figuring out inventory, but he’s learning.
“When it’s your business, the lows are much lower, the highs higher. I tell myself to live in the middle,” Dan says. “I like having projects, I hate being bored and complacent. Here, it never ends, and I’d rather be busy.
“It’s a family operation and we want it to feel like it when you walk in. People can buy some popcorn and feel like they’ve helped out the community.”
The Smiths are exploring a second location on Cape Cod.
“We know that Hyannis works so we’re looking for a similar vibe,” Dan says.