2014 R&D Team of the Year: Angie’s Boomchickapop

June 10, 2014
Natural ingredients come popping out of a garage in Minnesota.

What began in a home garage in Mankato, Minn., as a way to start a college fund has grown into a booming company with products in all 50 states, Canada, the Caribbean and even South Korea. Last year alone, Angie’s Boomchickapop grew more than 50 percent.

Husband and wife team Angie and Dan Bastian knew two college tuitions weren’t going to pay for themselves, so in 2001 the couple decided to start popping kettle corn at outdoor fairs to raise a little extra cash.

Dan, a former teacher now CEO of Angie’s, and Angie, a former nurse practitioner and president of the company, were committed to providing “better-for-you” snacks without chemicals or preservatives. “When my kids were little, I wanted to make sure the food they were eating didn’t have any ingredients that didn’t need to be in the final product,” she says. “I wanted to make a product I would feed my kids.”

For three years, the family of four popped at outdoor fairs, outside of grocery stores, Minnesota Vikings football training camp and anywhere else that would allow them to pop and bag their kettle corn on-site. Then, in 2004, a retail buyer took notice. Angie and Dan presented him with a twist-tie bag of freshly popped kettle corn from their kitchen. In return, they received backing to start commercial operations.

Out of a rented kitchen in a local grocery store, Angie and Dan launched Angie’s Sweet and Salty Kettle Corn in three stores. Operations consisted of a kettle mounted to a rolling stainless steel cart and a 100 percent handmade process for everything from popping to packaging.

That same year, Dan and Angie purchased a 2,200-sq.-ft. production facility. When the young company outgrew the space by 2007, that building became the R&D center. The current manufacturing facility is housed in 20,000-sq.-ft. warehouse where 150 employees manage production. Another 90 employees lead R&D, marketing, sales and support functions.

In the first stages, daily production averaged 300 bags from kernel to shipping in five hours. Today, Angie's produces up to 100,000 or more bags in a single day. In between, there certainly were growing pains.

“In the beginning, Dan and I really didn’t know much about food manufacturing," says Angie says. "We were used to our kettle at home. When you try to scale that up to 100,000 bags it’s not that easy.

“That presented challenges early on because we wanted to make our product with all natural flavors and colors. That was the basic core; we couldn’t produce anything if it didn’t meet those qualifications.”

To help them achieve their mission, the Bastians brought in a flavor consultant and added food scientist Erin Williams to the team to lead their R&D efforts and develop new flavor combinations and product formulations. According to Williams, innovation is fast-paced at Angie’s. Although the company does conduct traditional market research, many of the new flavor tests are simply spurred by the team’s suggestions on what they’d like to eat.

“We have our market research and retail partners that offer suggestions on what we can try with flavor combinations, but it all starts with what we want to eat,” Angie says. “We throw ideas on the wall and if they stick, then we try it.

"Of course, we do our research but all of our ideas still help drive the process. We were pretty primitive before when we’re trying to create new products. Erin has given us the ability to really stretch, explore and test, which we weren’t able to do until now.”

That notion of innovation is exactly what spurred the company’s seasonal varieties. It was a flavor combination contest at a trade show that brought the team to a white chocolate peppermint flavor kettle corn, which prompted the release of Angie’s Holidrizzle in Candy Corn, Chocolate, Iced Gingerbread and Cupcake flavors.

The team wasn’t finished there. They wanted to improve their flagship product, and did so by releasing a light version of the original kettle corn with 50 percent less sugar and fat. But it was Angie’s and Dan’s initial mission of creating a better-for-you snack that led to company’s most recent (and successful product) — Boomchickapop.

“In the spirit of full transparency, we thought why not let consumers know that popcorn is a whole grain snack that’s not only delicious but also good for you,” Angie explains. “We were certain that a non-sugar popcorn was of interest in the marketplace.”

Angie’s launched the sugar-free popcorn in Sea Salt, with the calories listed on the front of the packaging, in March 2012. It became the company’s top-selling product within four months.

Just getting started

Williams, who leads R&D, says the company typically has anywhere from 20 to 30 flavors in testing per month. “We get our direction from marketing and take suggestions from our partners and consumers. From there, I source ingredients and try different combinations in the test kitchen. When I think I have it right, it goes to Angie, the management team, and around the office for taste testing.”

According to the company, one flavor takes an average of six months to a year to develop from concept to launch. “Sometimes there is a version we like right away, but others can take up to 20 times before we get it right,” says Williams.

Angie’s has invested in its small batch production line, making it as efficient and productive as possible. The company uses a tailor-made kettle and wet pops, or pops with sunflower oil, in small batches every three to four minutes. Popped corn is packaged as quickly as possible in production into field packaging to preserve the product and prevent moisture.

“We did things a little differently here choosing to wet pop versus air pop, which is what everyone else was doing in the early 2000s,” says Dan. “That’s what differentiated our product — it tastes like something you would make at home.”

So what’s next for the booming Boomchickapop? A newly reformulated white cheddar version with a custom cheese blend, a lighter version of caramel cheddar mix and a seasonal flavor or two.

“Because of the sheer growth we had last year, we’ll focus on a couple of flavors in addition to our seasonal line,” says Angie. “A candy corn was popular for Halloween, and our Tutti Frutti was a hit for Valentine’s Day. We’re trying to provide an alternative snack to candy, yet make it flavorful, fun and interesting for kids too. That is where some of our innovation is focused.

“Our goal is to create transparently simple and healthy snacks. We want to give consumers what they want and deliver it in the best way we can," she continues. “We want to keep in touch with consumers, continue to respond to them and continue down the path of offering a well-received product.”

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the Bastian kids, they’re in high school this year and in between running errands for the R&D team this summer, they’re also part of the tasting team.

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