The intoxicating aroma of popcorn permeates the Valley Popcorn plant in Neenah, where business is booming.
At the Fox Valley facility, popcorn is produced throughout the day in small batches in an array of kettles and then packaged for distribution to retailers in Wisconsin and a large swath of the country.
“Business is getting to the point that it’s certainly dictating that we need to increase our volume,” said Steve Klegon, director of administration, human resources and quality assurance at Valley Popcorn since 2015. “We just have to figure out the best way to facilitate that.”
Owner and Chief Executive Officer Carl Freundl and his wife, Carol, founded Valley Popcorn in 1992 with six poppers and a few cases of kernels in their small home and two-car garage in Oshkosh. The business moved to its current plant in 1996. The facility has undergone multiple expansions to accommodate the growth.
Employment at the 25,000-square-foot facility, which includes an office area as well as a store that features a variety of popcorn products for sale to the public, is nearly 30 full-time equivalents. The vast majority of employees are involved directly in production. Plant operations continue to increase efficiencies by improving technology and work practices.
Valley Popcorn’s ready-to-eat line of products is the primary driver of the company’s growth, Klegon said.
“Being our size, we have incredible care and concern for the quality of the product and every detail that goes with that,” he said.
The intense attention paid to each and every detail of the production process allows Valley Popcorn to compete head-to-head with large, national snack manufacturers.
“What differentiates us in our market is the quality of our product, both in taste and presentation,” Klegon said.
As part of its ongoing plan to expand its market opportunities, Valley Popcorn opted to pursue certification under the Safe Quality Food (SQF) program.
“There are some companies out there that will ask as their first question if we are SQF certified,” Klegon said.
SQF is recognized by the Global Food Safety Initiative and retailers and food service providers that demand a stringent, credible food safety management system.
Valley Popcorn turned to the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership for guidance on its journey to SQF certification.
“The WMEP has the historical knowledge and understood that the commitment was a critical component for us,” Klegon said. “We had never dealt with SQF before.”
Peg Dorn, food safety consultant at the WMEP, worked side by-side with Valley Popcorn management and production personnel to get through the SQF certification process.
“Peg and the WMEP brought the knowledge and recognized where we needed to go and the commitment we needed to have,” Klegon said.
Valley Popcorn employees immediately bought into the process, Dorn said. It took about nine months to complete the certification process.
“I saw a major shift during that time,” Dorn said. “The company already made very good products, but I saw a deliberate shift toward more food safety.”
Valley Popcorn has been successful in expanding its presence in grocery chains. In addition to its ready-to-eat line, Valley Popcorn produces packs that include a seed compartment, seasoning and oil for consumers who want to make their own popcorn.
Klegon said the list of Valley Popcorn’s clients continues to grow.
The growth in demand for Valley Popcorn’s popcorn stems from consumer demand for healthier snack foods, according to Valley Popcorn management.
“We use just three ingredients and it’s a whole-grain snack,” Valley Popcorn President Doug Jarmusz said.
In addition to a more formal focus on food safety, Valley Popcorn also has been implementing lean manufacturing processes.
“We’ve got some production control boards out there so that everybody in the plant knows what the goals are, where we stand and, if there’s an issue, what we need to do to fix it,” said Jarmusz, who previously served as a lean sensei for a consulting company before joining Valley Popcorn.
Valley Popcorn management found its relationship with the WMEP to be very beneficial in seeking SQF certification.
“What we needed was offered to us by the WMEP,” Klegon said. “Direction. Historical knowledge. Experience. It certainly has been a positive relationship.”
The process benefitted Valley Popcorn, Dorn said.
“They took the ball and they ran with it,” she said. “They are now at the next level.”
For more information on food safety certification and other programs offered by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, go to www.wmep.org