Success pops up
Web Posted: 05/28/2008 08:27 PM CDT
By Adolfo Pesquera
The way Tara Staglik describes her life is that she ditched a career as a law clerk to be a popcorn snob.
She’s pretty good at it.
Papa Dean Neugent, a small businessman Staglik’s adoptive mother married a year ago, was looking to retire. Staglik, 36, was given an opportunity to buy. She called up her birth mother in San Francisco and asked if she wanted to go in as her partner.
The result? A one-shop operation in Alamo Heights that had done modestly well for 24 years and suddenly has become an “overnight” sensation.
“Papa Dean sees our numbers and just shakes his head,” Staglik said, noting his occasional comment: “How?”
How indeed. Using March as a typical “slow” month — as opposed to December, which is a mad scramble — the shop used to do about $3,000 in gross sales. This March it grossed $28,000. Annual sales have nearly quadrupled from the $100,000 made in 2006, Staglik said.
Staglik’s success grew out of a three-pronged strategy: create an identity, find new markets and upgrade their Web-based operations technology.
What Papa Dean’s always had going for it was a wide variety of unique flavors. Art Meier, the popcorn chef, can make anything taste good, although a few flavors must be made when no one else is around.
“When he’s making habanero, it’s so not fun,” Staglik said. “It’s like tear gas. He makes it in the early morning or after hours.”
But Papa Dean’s didn’t even have its own logo. It sold as generic popcorn in deco tins. Staglik wanted a Texas brand popcorn with more Texas flavors. She turned to a childhood friend from her youth growing up in Pearsall and came up with Texas Honey Pecan, made with a pure mesquite honey made by the Youngbloods, fourth-generation beekeepers.
“It’s our biggest seller,” Staglik said.
Thus Papa Dean’s Popcorn was born. The logo includes an Alamo motif-shaped beeline with a honeybee in the right corner of a buckle-shaped oval.
Staglik also remodeled the shop.
“It was so clinical looking — white, off-white and gray,” she lamented.
Instead of just selling tins, Staglik began offering special occasion bags for parties of all kinds. A popcorn bag as a birth announcement — “Look who just popped into the world!” — was one of her ideas that took off.
Staglik, an exuberant spirit with a flair for mischief, had ideas other than saving birds when she came up with the idea of replacing uncooked rice at weddings with “wedding popcorn.” (Urban legend has it that birds will explode from eating uncooked rice, which the USA Rice Federation says isn’t true.)
“You can really get some distance with popcorn. What can you do with rice? You can pelt a bride at 25 feet with a popcorn kernel,” Staglik boasted, not to mention the color of popcorn can match any the bride comes up with for her wedding day theme.
Katherine Graves, 54, is Staglik’s birth mother and partner. A former executive secretary, her role is handling corporate accounts and the shop’s three employees. She leaves marketing to Staglik.
“Tara is extremely creative and personable to a fault,” Graves said. “She can handle the toughest of customers.”
But they couldn’t handle the December rush. Staglik had gone to San Antonio-based World & Web to revamp their Web site. Between the walk-in traffic and the Internet orders, Papa Dean’s suddenly was too successful.
“I called up Garth Dennis,” Staglik said, referring to World & Web’s founder. “I said, ‘We’re drowning here. What can you do for us?’.”
That same day, Dennis patched the Web site into Ifbyphone, a Skokie, Ill.-based phone applications service.
“It’s like having a virtual receptionist that is collecting information from your customers,” explained Ifbyphone CEO Irv Shapiro. “So when you get to them, you have additional information and you can handle their order more effectively.”
Staglik said the service rescued the shop’s holiday season. And it gave Papa Dean’s much more information on clients than staff could have acquired under such rush circumstances.
While the shop itself has been something of an unusual success, the business partnership is just as unusual.
Staglik’s adoptive mom, May Nell Neugent, set out to find Staglik’s birth mom when Staglik still was a teen.
Neugent tracked Graves down when Staglik was 19, and Staglik has been in touch with her birth mom ever since.
When Staglik was looking for a partner, she turned to Graves, knowing she was ready to take some new direction in her life.
“She left San Francisco for popcorn,” Staglik said. “That’s faith.”
But that faith has been rewarded. Staglik describes the Internet growth as “gangbusters.” Papa Dean’s is marketed as an elite popcorn line and it’s getting national accounts. M-A-C Cosmetics ordered 2,000 gallons of Hot Pink Bubble Gum popcorn to send to its distributors when the company rolled out a new line, Staglik said.
And the staff for recording artist Tori Amos placed an order when she was in San Antonio last November.
“They called and just had one question — do we use air or oil? A lot of places use air, but we use oil,” Staglik said. “Three weeks later, Tori e-mails us directly. I wrote the delivery greeting on her behalf: ‘Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad.’.”
Staglik, self-described Chief Popcorn Gal, sent along a pink ringer T-shirt with the inscription “popcorn snob.” Staglik sent a note to Amos’ parents asking them to give her the shirt.
“Someday, she’s going to wear it on stage,” Staglik said confidently.