You’ve earned your Kansas City bona fides if you know those are popcorn companies and their best-selling “three-ways.”
For some reason — perhaps proximity to the cornfield-growing meccas of Nebraska and Iowa — Kansas City is a capital of popcorn, with two longstanding companies turning out tons of it every year.
Especially now. As much a holiday signature as the Country Club Plaza lights, their multi-flavor popcorn tins are doing their annual blossom everywhere at this time of year.
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Just how important is the seasonal surge?
“We lose money every month of the year except December,” said Topsy’s owner Bob Ramm, who’s in his 47th holiday season in the popcorn business. “The company earns 200 percent of its annual income during the month of December. Fifty percent of its sales are in the holiday season.”
But it’s a business model that works. Topsy’s, based in the Waldo neighborhood of Kansas City, is growing 8 to 10 percent a year with no signs of popcorn satiation.
“I compare the business to turkeys,” Ramm offered in what sounded like a left field turn. “How often does a person buy a whole turkey? But you eat turkey sandwiches all year. The tin business booms in December, but people eat popcorn all year long.”
Just across the state line in the suburb of Westwood, Velvet Creme is thankfully deep in its seasonal rush as well.
“The volume is terrific,” said Jerry Wright, who married into the third generation of the family-owned Velvet Creme business. “We have 10 full-time employees the rest of the year. We have 52 this season. We’re working 12- or 13-hour days six days a week.”
From kernels to gift box, the production route is short. Humidity is popcorn’s enemy, so the popping-to-packaging process is fast. And fragrant. Brown-sugar caramel competes with pungent cinnamon, overwhelming wafts of cheese and butter in the popcorn “kitchens.”
“It’s all good,” said Charlotte Mason, who signed on to be a seasonal popcorn packer at Topsy’s 26 years ago. After five seasons, she hired on full-time. “I still love it,” she said of popcorn, admitting that her favorite is the cheese.
Ditto, said Felicia Martinez, who’s back for her 17th year of packaging and hasn’t lost the taste for it, even after helping the crew that packs 2,000 to 3,000 cans a day in peak production.
Both Topsy’s and Velvet Creme thrive on online catalog and wholesale sales. Wright said Velvet Creme’s catalog sales go to about 7,000 corporate accounts a year, with orders ranging from one can to 1,500. Ramm said Topsy’s biggest single order he can recall — from a pharmaceutical company — was for 100,000 cans.
Both companies’ products also are shipped wholesale to grocery stores in an array of packaging.
From a retail angle, Topsy’s has the edge, with 13 branded stores and a geographical spread of outlets in Kansas City, Kansas City, Kan., Independence, Lee’s Summit, Grandview, Overland Park, St. Joseph and Topeka. Velvet Creme’s sole shop is at its headquarters on Belinder Road.
Velvet Creme was founded during the Depression, when most people didn’t have much fun money for snacks. But Howard White and his wife, Dona, forged ahead in 1937. They used his last paycheck after he was laid off from his job to buy popcorn, oil, salt and syrup.
The Whites at first sold popcorn and fudge out of their home, and the venture grew enough that even after Howard White was able to return to his former job, they kept the popcorn line going, moving it downtown. Orders from downtown hotels and theaters rolled in, so much that Howard White quit his job to focus full-time on Velvet Creme.
The founders’ son Kenneth, granddaughter Nance, and grandchildren have kept the lineage going into a fourth generation. They claim a business contribution from Ken’s wife, Patricia, who in 1954 created the first hand-painted, originally designed popcorn tins.
Topsy’s dates its origins to a store on the Country Club Plaza that opened as Patsy’s. The single store was bought in 1948 by Jerry Berger, who changed the name to Topsy’s and trademarked it in 1950. Berger operated a total of five stores before he decided to sell stock to investors in 1968.
Berger used proceeds from the initial public offering to expand Topsy’s into snack bar operations in up to 500 discount department stores coast to coast. But by the 1980s, about half of those stores had closed. Topsy’s future looked bleak.
Berger sold his remaining interest in the company to an investment group in 1985. The investors closed more stores and formed a new company, TFC International. According to Topsy history, TFC “engaged in high-risk speculative mortgages” and then filed for bankruptcy in 1987.
Ramm, who’d worked in the business since he was 19 years old and had become a Topsy franchisee, bought the popcorn assets out of bankruptcy. He chuckles at some of his early efforts to rebuild the company.
“For my first cheese mixer, I used a trash bin,” Ramm recalled. “It was a brand new trash bin, but the health inspector said that didn’t matter. I couldn’t use a trash bin in the production. So I designed a new machine. I tried to get a patent on it, but I didn’t use a lawyer. I stupidly admitted I’d been using my design for two years, and they said I couldn’t get a patent after that much time.”
For ramping up his popping equipment to produce greater volume, Ramm scoured the country and found an unusual machine built in 1972 for Universal Studios in southern California. The equipment had been sold to someone in Denver, and Ramm bought it from that person.
“It pops at 410 degrees, 400 pounds an hour,” he said. “That’s important for high-quality popcorn. You need a lot of heat. You start with a good kernel, like Orville Redenbacher’s, and get a lot better results than in your microwave at home.”
His production uses two kinds of premium-grade kernels. One of them pops into a round globe that handles the flavor mixing well without breaking apart. The other, used for plain or buttered popcorn, is the “butterfly” kind that makes a fluffier pop with “ears” that explode out from the kernel.
From poppers, to sifters that remove “old maids,” to mixers where the flavoring is added, to cooling trays where the popcorn is stirred to make sure kernels don’t stick together, to packaging, the process is driven by timed machines. Once in the packaging room, the process moves at a more human-led pace.
Each day at Velvet Creme, FedEx Ground makes pickups. Each day at Topsy’s, UPS does the same.
Both companies said they strive for buyers online from all over the country, as well as those who walk in their stores, to get a fresh product, packaged to preference in size, price, tin decoration and flavors. And they’re rarely surprised if the order includes cheese and caramel.