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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 13, 2020 3 weeks ago

Couple's grit, creativity leads to tasty company

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Angie and Dan Bastian's secret sauce for a thriving business — and lucrative exit — lies in a underutilized principle: Go forward, with gusto, but without all the answers.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Angie Bastian first tried kettle corn, she recalls, when her kids were little and she and her husband, Dan, took them to festivals at Hunsader Farms, east of Interstate 75 in Manatee County.

Two decades later, after a family move to Minnesota and now back, part time, in the Sarasota area, the Bastians have a powerful kettle corn and popcorn-driven entrepreneurial success story: The couple built Angie’s Boomchickapop into a $90 million snack company, focused on a variety of healthy, better-for-you popcorn flavors. The company’s popcorn, gluten-free and with non-GMO products, is sold in thousands of grocery stores, Costcos, Targets and online.

The Bastians sold Angie’s Boomchickapop in 2017 to Chicago packaged food giant Conagra Brands. The ride to get there, what started in the garage of their Mankato, Minn., home in 2001, Dan Bastian says, was a roller coaster journey filled with kernels of valuable business lessons. Among them: Never relent on top-shelf product and service; take chances — but when business comes from those risks, find a way to handle it no matter what; and create a workplace where employees are empowered and not micro-managed.

“Our biggest strategy was adjusting on the fly, making decisions and then working to fulfill those decisions,” Dan says. “It’s not anything I’d recommend, but when you are growing, and Costco and Target comes to you and says, ‘Can you do this many bags by January?’ you say yes because you never know when you will get a chance like that again.”

The Bastians, part-time Siesta Key residents, spoke recently about their venture, originally named Angie’s Kettle Corn.

• Pop pop: The Bastians didn’t start out as entrepreneurs. Dan, now 52, was a high school social studies and junior high Spanish teacher. Angie, 59, was a nurse at a state psychiatric facility and the Mayo Clinic. Although many $100 million snack brands today have cool and interesting backstories, back then, in the early 2000s, Dan says, “it wasn’t like this was normal and everyone did it.”

• Two things: Dan comes from a family of accountants, while Angie’s dad ran a senior living community in Sarasota, Sunnyside Village, for 25 years. But when they launched the business, Dan says: “We were clueless. We knew one of the things we were really good at was building relationships — that became how we did business. Early on, when our staff was small, we told everyone we have to have a great product, and we have to provide great service. Those were two things we cannot screw up on. Our focus was always that. If you create a great product, and you don’t have great service, then it just sits on the shelf. But if you can provide service to that, retailers will allow you to make a few mistakes.”

• Work for it: The couple moved from Sarasota to Mankato, south of Minneapolis, to be near Dan’s family, right before they founded the company. Angie was working nights, and Dan tooled around online when she was at work, looking for a business they could buy. Angie says, “He called me one night and said, 'What do you think about kettle corn?'”

'So often mistakes turn into positives because you don’t have choice. Either they bury you or force you to deal with it.’ Dan Bastian, Boomchickapop

• Cash cow: The Bastians bought a kettle corn business kit from a couple in Washington state for $8,000. They paid for it on their credit card. Within three weeks, Angie says, they were “popping out in front of grocery stores.” Then they got a mobile food license and started doing events. “The first time we set up our tent [on a night before Thanksgiving], we made $300,” Angie says. "It was kind of a big deal for us.”

• Snacks and sacks: The couple soon hit little league games, college campuses, festivals and fairs. In summer 2002, they popped 120 bags, on spec, to give to Minnesota Vikings players and coaches when they arrived in the morning for training camp. The kettle corn was a hit. “The next day the sales and marketing team came to the tent and asked us if we wanted to be the official kettle corn of the Minnesota Vikings,” Angie says. “Which we didn’t understand, that was another investment for us and a revenue stream for them.” But even with the investment, Dan adds, looking back, “you get legitimacy as a business by connecting  yourself to bigger brands.”

• Bigger steps: The Vikings were a tipping point. By 2003, Dan quit his job to focus on Angie’s Kettle Corn full time. They won a few contracts for local grocery chains, and Dan, at first, handled popping and delivery — foregoing a salary. Up next: The firm bought a 2,200-square-foot manufacturing space. “When we bought it,” Angie says, “I never it thought we’d outgrow it, but we did.”

Courtesy/Angie’s Artisan Treats LLC. Dan and Angie Bastian founded Angie’s Boomchickapop in 2001.

Employer of choice: One of the themes of the Bastians entrepreneurial life was the pressure they felt to be a top employer. Particularly the decade, 2005-2015, when the business grew wildly. “It was a pretty stressful time because we were growing so fast, and when you grow fast, and you need money you go further in debt than you realized,” Angie says. “The weight of the financial burden you carry as a business owner and the weight of having a great place to work with a great culture, where people are thriving is difficult. That pervasive frame of mind of getting the internal culture right carried us all the way through until we sold the company. That was meaningful to us.”

• Pay day: The couple’s general rule in hiring? Bring on people who are curious problem solvers, “seekers,” Angie says. Much of the work was project-based. If people needed to leave to go to a school concert or care for an elderly relative, that was OK — as long as the work was high-quality and on time. Also, many employees had equity in the company, a nice payday when ConAgra came calling. “We had an environment where people wanted to bring the best of who they were to the company,” Angie says. Dan adds: “We wanted to empower our staff, and there was no agenda other than work hard and get it done. We weren’t crack-the-whip kind of people. In turn, they gave us everything. And it turned out well for a lot of people.”

• Capital one: At around $11 million a year in sales by 2011, the company made a key decision to seek private equity funds. “We got some major accounts in 2008 and 2009,” Angie says. “We were profitable, and retailers started coming to us because we were doing so well. We didn’t need an investment, but we needed a network, [and] we needed expertise.”

• Growing up: The company received a minority equity investment from Boston-based Sherbrooke Capital. “They helped us build a sales team, hone our operations, improve our marketing,” Angie says. It also led to a rocket-like jump in sales, from $11 million to 2011 to $78 million in 2014, a 609% increase. Sherbrooke exited the company in 2014, and the Bastians next received funding from San Francisco-based TPG Growth. That firm, Angie says, helped the company “add a whole new level of business acumen, and we really focused on the brand and sales execution.”

Lori Sax. Angie Bastian says creating a top place to work was a priority at Angie’s Boomchickapop.

• Lessons learned: Angie says one key mistake was building a plant too early when they didn’t have enough orders. “Before you know it, we couldn’t find enough financing,” she says. In hindsight, Dan says, the mistake was a blessing because they figured out a way to get more contracts and get the factory humming. “So often mistakes turn into positives because you don’t have a choice,” Dan says. “Either they bury you or force you to deal with it.”

• What’s in a name: The company considered a product name change in 2011, to time it with an update in packaging and branding. “We knew consumers saw popcorn in a much broader way, and we were confined by the name,” Angie says. “So we looked at the context: Where does our popcorn live?”

• Market opportunity: That led Angie to articulate her problem with how, back then, food companies marketed snacks to female consumers. “They assumed we were all on a diet, and I thought, ‘Talk to me the same way [as kids or men].' And what I noticed was on the food shelves, no one was celebrating the feminine archetype. Advertising and marketing at the time for food for women was either a moment of conflict or a sexualized behavior,” she says. “I thought this was our chance to do things a different way — come from a position of empowerment, come from a position that didn’t reduce women to what they should look like or act like. We wanted to elicit curiosity, be full of energy and empower and enhance a feminine perspective on the shelf.”

• Lower the boom: One of the ideas a marketing firm came up, in conjunction with Angie and her internal team, was Boom Chicka Pow Pow. They shortened it to Boomchickapop, and it debuted in May 2012, on a sea salt flavor. By August that product was the company’s biggest seller. Target helped transition to the new name, one product at a time on a test run. “Each time we switched the package — we kept the same recipe but switched the package — our sales velocity went up by two to three times,” Angie says.

• End game: Dan says exit strategy was the last thing on the couple’s mind when they started the company. But the timing was right in 2017 when TPG Capital sold the brand to ConAgra. “It was such a long journey,” he says. “It was such a roller coaster [that] you just don’t know where this is going or if it’s going to crash. We had so many experiences where you get hit with something, and it’s how you respond to that. Everyone gets whacked in a startup, everyone get surprised, everyone has problems to solve. Companies with the staff who can problem-solve are the ones that have a chance.”

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