When Joliet residents Walter Dean and Leanne Dean went to see the movie “Up,” they loved everything about the experience except the popcorn.
With the attitude of “I can do better than that,” they watched a movie at home for their second date and made their own popcorn. They didn’t know it at the time, but the popcorn maker Leanne Dean gifted Walter Dean for his birthday that year became the kernel of their business Popus Gourmet Popcorn in Joliet.
Five years later, the couple has two locations (Joliet and Tinley Park) and are currently mentoring four other entrepreneurs. But that’s not how they define success, Walter Dean said.
“The support we get from the community – that’s how I define success,” Walter Dean said.
Would people pay for it?
Initially the Deans just popped and enjoyed buttered corn at home. Leanne Dean said she and Walter Dean love popcorn – as in LOVE popcorn. Even before Popus Gourmet Popcorn, Leanne Dean ate popcorn every day, even at work.
Eventually the couple experimented with flavors they “didn’t see on the shelf at Walmart” and shared their flavor combinations with family and friends, who encouraged them, Leanne Dean said.
Leanne Dean said she likes sweet popcorn, like caramel corn. Walter Dean is the “cheese guy,” she said.
“We’re kind of adventurous, so we started researching on how to make the best cinnamon popcorn or how to make the best cheese popcorn,” Leanne Dean said. “We’d throw some dill on top or seasoned salt just to see what would happen.”
Loved ones encouraged them to start a business. Not certain they should forsake their day jobs – Leanne Dean worked in insurance for 22 years, she said – they tested some flavors by selling popcorn at festivals and other events, Leanne Dean said.
Working the festival circuit expanded the Deans’ mindset about business, Leanne Dean said. They met people who actually made a living as vendors – and it shook up Leanne’s Dean preconception that “career” meant 30 years at one company, she said.
Leanne Dean said they also learned they had a viable product.
“People really liked it,” Leanne Dean said. “People actually stopped and paid money for it … but would people actually gravitate to it on a daily basis?”
A dream job is still a job
Leanne Dean said she and Walter Dean drew up a business and marketing plan and kept working festivals until they felt comfortable leaving their regular jobs.
They also understood that a dream job was still a job.
“My dad always told me that, ‘Work is work. That doesn’t change,’” Leanne Dean said. “Either way it goes, it’s going to be work. However, we just wanted to make sure the atmosphere was happy for employees as well as customers.”
— "We just wanted to make sure the atmosphere was happy for employees as well as customers." Leanne Dean, co-owner, Popus Gourmet Popcorn.
Leanne Dean said it was an adjustment moving from the 9 to 5 mindset to a 24-hour mindset. And that wasn’t bad.
“It’s your 24 hours,” Dean said. “It’s just different … you can individualize your best work time. When it’s your business, you get to make that choice.”
Leanne Dean said they supported community organizations and fundraisers with popcorn whenever they could, few questions asked, and found ways to incorporate popcorn into their customers’ lives.
“We’ve done everything from funeral favors to wedding favors to corporate packaging,” Leanne Dean said.
Leanne Dean said customers might request personalized labels for people’s special days. They have regular customers that want the same popcorn every day or every week. And they have other customers who say, “Surprise me,” Leanne Dean said.
The store’s current flavors cater to “sweet” and “savory” tastes. Sweet popcorn includes caramel, caramel apple, banana, banana pudding and fruit explosion.
Savory popcorn includes movie butter, cheesy, white cheddar, Kickin’ Jalapeno, Simply Blazin’ (hot)and Sriracha. Midwest Mix is a combination of caramel and white cheddar.
From concept to profit
Walter Dean said the business became profitable once he learned how to reduce costs and waste, while not skimping on the quality, by seeking out the distributors right for his business. He said business owners sometimes “cut corners” to “make a profit,” which he and Leanne Dean vowed not to do, he said.
“We stick to the exact same recipe and the exact same ingredients,” Walter Dean said. “That’s the thing: consistency. As long as we stay consistent, if people love our product, ti’s never going to change. We try our best to stay consistent.”
Walter Dean said he and Leanne Dean are proud of their memberships in the Joliet Region Chamber of Commerce and the African American Business Association of Will County He only wishes they’d discovered the organizations sooner.
“It’s hard to know these things without trial and error,” Walter Dean said. “Unfortunately, we went through the trial and error method.”
That’s why Walter Dean is currently mentoring four people who are also starting their small businesses – to help them avoid mistakes he made by not having a mentor, he said.
“I am appreciative of Will County and the people I met along the way,” Walter Dean said. “I may not have had a mentorship. But when I asked the right questions, I got the correct answers. So no one steered me wrong.”
As far as franchising, Walter Dean is weighing pros and cons. He loves the idea if he can retain control and limit the amount of franchising to five or so stores with a certain radius, he said.
So for now, the Deans focus on what’s most important to them.
“It’s just really nice to be able to craft what we love into people’s everyday lives,” Leanne Dean said.
Here are five key business concepts Walter Dean and Leanne Dean of Joliet learned from owning and operating Popus Gourmet Popcorn.
* Test your concept before leaving your day job. Will people actually pay for your product?
* A business and marketing plan is a must.
* A dream job is still a job.
* Continually find new ways to make your product relevant.
* Support the community if you want the community to support you.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Popus Gourmet Popcorn
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday. 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
WHERE: 2004 W. Jefferson St. Joliet
INFO: Call 815-280-5133 or visit popusgourmetpopcorn.com.