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Kansas couple turns popcorn into growing business

WHITING, Kan. (AP)--What started as an idea the size of a kernel has grown into a popcorn business that ships its product across the United States.

Gary and Marian Schlaegel said they started marketing the popcorn they were growing on their farm near Whiting in the early 1970s. Originally, the couple sold packaged, unpopped yellow and white kernels.

But in the mid-1990s, when consumers began to favor immediate snacks, the Schlaegels decided to enter the prepared, flavored popcorn market.

"It's really taken off,'' Gary Schlaegel said. "We ship it all over the country.''

Today, Schlaegel's Homegrown Popcorn markets popped popcorn in 30 flavors, as well as the unpopped kernels. The most popular flavors are caramel, rainbow (a mix of fruit flavors), chocolate drizzle, yellow cheddar, caramel pecan, cinnamon and kettle corn.

The company sells "sweet'' popcorn that has been glazed with flavored syrup or "dry'' popcorn that has been dusted with powdered flavorings, such as sour cream and chives, barbecue or ranch.

The Schlaegels pop their corn, using corn or soybean oil, in a popper similar to one found in movie theaters. The popcorn, which has a shelf life of 90 to 120 days, is hand-packaged and sold in cellophane bags, pails, tins or gift boxes.

Each year, Schlaegel said, he plants 10 acres of popcorn, which yields from 40 to 50 bushels per acre. He also grows 250 acres of regular field corn and 250 acres of soybeans on the farm, too.

As the popcorn field expanded, the Schlaegels decided to build a 30- by 60-foot production facility near their home. The popcorn business is in the east side of the building; the west side is used for Schlaegel's tax preparation business.

"Most of our tax customers are also popcorn customers,'' he said, adding he's prepared taxes for 37 years.

The couple hired Mike Tanking to be their partner in the popcorn and tax businesses in 2006. Tanking had worked part-time at the popcorn business since eighth grade and joined them full-time after graduating from Ottawa University with a business degree.

In addition to developing a website for the popcorn business, Tanking has designed and produced labels that can be individualized to fit customers' needs. For example, he recently created personalized labels to put on bags of popcorn that were going to be distributed as favors at a wedding reception.

"We can do all kinds of things with labeling,'' Tanking said.

The Christmas holiday season is the busiest time of the year for Schlaegel's Homegrown Popcorn.

"We ship 35 to 40 boxes a day during the holiday season,'' Tanking said.

In Topeka, Schlaegel's Homegrown Popcorn can be found at Petro-Deli and Kelly Express. The popcorn also is sold at 20 to 25 gift shops in Kansas.

"We like to sell it directly to people and businesses,'' Schlaegel said.



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