Made in Topeka: Cashmere Gourmet Popcorn
Angie and Bill Anderson started selling their sweet treats to family, friends and co-workers as a fundraiser for their Jefferson County Relay for Life team. The motivation was personal--Bill was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2000. It started with peddling cookies, then moved to caramel popcorn one Christmas season.
“It took three hours to make and 15 minutes to eat,” Bill joked.
PLANTING THE KERNEL The idea to grow their modest fundraiser into a business venture really took root when their two daughters, Aleigha, now 17, and Emily, now 15, started playing softball. Their teams often took on various ventures to raise money.
“None of it was local,” Angie said. “It was nothing unique about any of the fundraising products we were selling, so Bill said we should consider starting a gourmet popcorn company.”
Angie, who previously worked for Jefferson County’s Head Start program, was managing the market for Rees Fruit Farm at the time. They had a piece of unused equipment that turned out to be a commercial caramelizer. Owner Rex Rees let Angie take it to her kitchen and tweak her recipe to see what she could produce on a larger scale.
“We want to be able to retain that homemade taste and texture and produce it on a commercial level,” Bill said. “That’s what separates us—it still tastes like it was made in the kitchen.”
A BUSINESS POPSCashmere Gourmet Popcorn was officially born in February 2013. They started selling at farmers markets and, to be able to offer it as a fundraising product, obtained a license for a commercial kitchen. In July 2013, they rented an incubator kitchen. They then decided that since they had the license, why not do a retail business as well? They rented a space at 1003 SE Quincy large enough for production, packaging and sales, which opened in time for the Christmas 2014 shopping season.
“Did we think we’d have a retail store? Absolutely not. It just fell where it was supposed to,” Angie said.
The store, with its customer interaction, has become a favorite part of the business. Bill says it brings out Angie’s personality.
“I just like being able to share kindness,” Angie said. “I like getting to know the people who come in here. They love coming in and smelling the smells. They love coming in and bringing their grandkids.”
Wholesale and corporate orders still account for the largest part of Cashmere Gourmet Popcorn's business. The product is carried at several boutique and specialty stores around Kansas— Rees Fruit Farm was among the first to sign on. They also continue to gain interest regionally and beyond. A woman in New York City offers Cashmere Gourmet Popcorn as an item to include in her special-order gift basket business. Their efforts even earned them the 2015 Emerging Entrepreneur Award from the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce.
Growth is flattering, they say, but something they’ll keep in check.
“We want more than anything to keep the integrity of the customer service and the product,” Angie said.
The product line is constantly evolving. The shop offers 16 flavors at all times, with staples such as caramel and cinnamon. They toss in seasonal offerings too, such as s’mores and pumpkin spice in fall. Other flavors, such as minty chocolate, chocolatepeanut butter or brightly-colored fruity combinations, might come from customer suggestions or something that catches their own taste buds.
“For cinnamon toast (flavor), one day I was nibbling on some Teddy Grahams and I thought, ‘I ought to make a cinnamon and sugar popcorn and put honey in it, too,’” Bill said. “It’s one of our best sellers now.”
THE SWEET LIFE It would be fair to say cancer didn’t just inspire the business, but also made it stronger. Just as they launched, Bill suffered a recurrence. He feels healthy now, but knows the cancer may never go away.
“I needed to create something with the time I have left, to help Angie out if things ever took a turn for the worse,” Bill said. “I was looking for an opportunity to create something and possibly leave it as a legacy for the girls, if they wanted to continue a business Angie and I created.”
Their daughters help out around the business, packaging popcorn, filling orders and working the retail counter. Bill still works as an industrial mechanic for Hill’s Pet Nutrition, but changed his shifts to allow him to devote time to the family’s business. Family, in fact, is their recipe for success—combined with a bit of sugar, a dose of faith and a whole lot of humor, too.
“Cancer is ugly, but it’s turned us into a family that maybe laughs at things other families wouldn’t laugh about. We love deeper and realize that at any moment...” Angie pauses. “We’re kind of blessed because we’re able to know you have to make today count. So many times we forget that. (Cancer) made us love each other. A lot. Even though we argue over popcorn.”