From fireworks stand to smartphone app: How a Kansas family's business keeps booming

One of the largest firework distributors in America got its start from a single stand in Pittsburg, Kansas, in 1964.

David and John Collar started selling fireworks as a summer business when they were teenagers and let their younger brother Mike help out as he could. That summer business blossomed into Prairie Village-based Winco Fireworks, which now has outlets in 40 states.

As the business grew, the Collar family worked to build relationships with fireworks distributors and 23 years ago, formed a partnership to become the exclusive retailer for Black Cat, the oldest firework brand in America.

“Every single year since then, we have grown,” said Mike Collar, 56, who now serves as Winco president.

John and Mike Collar
John (left) and Mike (right) Collar at the Winco Fireworks distribution center in Grandview, Missouri. "“Our whole family is still very much involved in this business, and it’s kind of what’s helped us grow," Mike said. Contributed

Now, the local business is at the forefront of a new technological advancement in the industry: lighting fireworks and creating entire shows from a cellphone or tablet.

The $200 product, called FireFly, is a small black box that allows the user to light fireworks remotely. A user has to download the app from and use Bluetooth to connect the FireFly box to the app. From there, they can tell the app to light fireworks individually or set up a show synchronized to music.

The fireworks themselves are lit by placing the fuse in a small, black clip that connects to the main FireFly box and uses a cigarette lighter-type technology to heat the clip just long enough to light the fuse.

“Other people have tried these types of devices, but nothing like this where you can Bluetooth from your phone and shoot the fireworks from that device,” Collar said. “We feel like it’s going to make things so much safer and so much more exciting.”

Limiting injuries, while making fireworks displays more accessible to the average person were the main goals when FireFly was created. On average, 280 people go to the emergency room every day in the weeks before and after the July 4 holiday, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The technology itself was created by someone from a Hong Kong-based fireworks business.

Kevin Wu, 28, product developer for Winco Fireworks, connects a Firefly device with a dozen of fireworks and later he would set off the fireworks from his tablet. Shelly Yang

Kevin Wu, a 28-year-old product developer, pitched FireFly to the Collar family several years ago. Wu said his family has been in the fireworks business for nearly six generations, but growing up, he never felt the urge to follow in those footsteps. He said for a while, he wanted “nothing to do with fireworks.”

“As a young kid, you’re like ‘I’m going to do something different than my dad,’” he said. “But my family asked me to come back and I looked at the firework industry as a whole and noticed that not a lot of innovation had happened.”

David Collar
David Collar, 69, at a Winco fireworks retail outlet. Collar started Winco Fireworks with his brothers John and Mike in Pittsburg, Kansas in 1964. Contributed

That’s how FireFly came about. Wu said he asked himself what he would want to see in a fireworks product, and then realized he wanted to make something even the casual fireworks user could operate.

“I want everyone who experiences fireworks to be able to say that ‘I can also do what I see.’ I want people to look at a fireworks show and go ‘that is not out of my reach,’” he said. “I want to make things safer, I want to make things more fun.”

FireFly held what Collar and Wu called a “soft launch” late last year, but still sold enough units to produce 10,000 fireworks shows — a figure they can track from the back end of the FireFly app.

Despite the massive growth Winco has seen since the first Collar brothers fireworks stand in 1964 — something they hope will continue with a full year of FireFly under its belt — Mike said the business at its core still exudes family values.

“We’re very proud. And we all know as a family that we’ve worked hard, but we’ve sure had some valuable employees that’s helped us take this to the next level,” he said. “It’s been incredible. That’s what’s really helped Winco get where it is today, but we still have the values of a family business.”