Written by Kevin Heffernan
Photos Courtesy Whats Pop-in
“Don’t get me wrong the business degrees help, but most times you just gotta get thrown into it and adapt and make change when you see change. Isn’t that life?”
When trying to schedule a phone call with Stefan Coker, co-founder of Whats Pop-in Gourmet Popcorn, and offered “anytime that works for you” last Friday, it was refreshing and reassuring to hear, days in advance, “I’ll be swamped with orders all day Friday, maybe we could chat at 6PM that day?”
While we’ve been developing this series to see how businesses are adapting in order to keep their lights on, I was caught off guard, and so excited to hear from one that is just straight up kicking ass.
“Things are going great! Right now, we’re busier than we’ve ever been. I’m not sure what really happened – maybe it has something to do with everything going on and more people wanting comfort food in their homes, but that’s really a question for the customer to answer. We are operating according to our growth plan set out months before coronavirus, and so far, it’s all lining up.
“We are working pretty hard right now, but we always were before this. We’re now delivering all over the country. So our job remains developing and perfecting new flavors and getting the word out about our product – here in Buffalo and nationwide.”
Coker was Executive Chef at Larkin Square for a few years before launching What’s Pop-in with Dave Whelan.
“We got tired of always sending out side salads, so we started sending out some black truffle popcorn and people went nuts for it. It’s our baby.”
Coker and Whelan opened up their shop on West Ferry and Chenango last year, partly just to spite those who doubted that they could.
“We opened the store to have a physical presence, but honestly, delivery-only could carry the operation. We wanted that presence on the west side because so many people told us we couldn’t open a popcorn store in west side. Why is that? I grew up here. I know this neighborhood. There’s often so many people with opinions, doubts – they want to talk shit and that motivates the hell outta me. We understand why people might have doubts. It’s popcorn, after all. But they tend to doubt what they don’t understand, including this industry.
“We show popcorn in different light and via nontraditional means. You have to change with time and trends and that means changing every single day. All the adaptation to the industry, to this COVID moment, that comes from our restaurant experience where adapting is the name of the game. I truly feel I was put here for this business. My three little kids are involved, each with their own flavors. I need to do this. I have to do it for me. I have to do it for my children. They’re fortunate kids. They go to Starpoint schools where their mother lives. They have a great life, but I wanted to put this shop in the west side and invite them to be part of it so that they could see some other parts of life.
“We’re also located where we are to do it for the kids in this neighborhood. We can show them that working hard in pursuit of an idea is alternative to working the streets. I can share our story with the kids selling on the corner, or I can share it with anyone, anywhere who’s looking for motivation to make a business really happen.
“What I’m always asking myself, and other people is, ‘What happened to the passion? The passion before making money. Where’s the passion that was for the work, the growth, and the impact?’ If more people got out of bed with that as their passion first, the money will come without a doubt.
“This is about more than turning a profit, and doing well in Buffalo. When I talked my grandfather about this while idea, he asked me, ‘Are you just getting into this to make popcorn and stay in the industry? Or are you making popcorn in order to take over the industry?'”
“I WANT TO TAKE OVER THE INDUSTRY.”
“I think anytime someone’s starting up a business, or starting a new job, they have to ask themselves how badly they want this thing. My partner and I are waking up at three or four in the morning and getting to work. When I’m with my kids, they’re working with me. We’re always working and it’s paying off. We’re seeing our growth happen, and we’re now at a point where we can just barely keep up with demand. People who make orders are told it will be five days before we can process and ship, and they don’t mind – they keep ordering. You truly do get out of a business what you put in. A great idea is no longer enough. It needs to be accompanied by hustle.
“Look. This is something new. We’re ahead of everyone else because we’re doing something people are not accustomed to seeing. This isn’t just about ‘Hey their popcorn is good.’ We take pride in making it an adventure for our customers. With each bag, we’re educating their palates. Popcorn, as simple as it may seem at first, is this amazing canvas for new flavors and experiences for all different tastes. In January, we started launching wine pairings once per week in order to help people see popcorn differently. How it could be fun and/or sophisticated.
“Those pairings also helped us develop more personal relationships with customers. That has always been what this is about. If you treat customers, large or small, like numbers, you’re going to fail. We want a relationship with every single person, group, or business that buys from us. That doesn’t just help make them return customers, it turns them into advocates for us so our business grows.
“When we first got this going, I hit every single market we could possibly hit, again and again. First locally, and now we’re trying to make those introductions nationally as we see orders pile up from around the country. Since that March 15 turning point for everyone, Dave and I are still just as busy and still doing all of it ourselves. Our supply chain from spices to bags to the kernels themselves has thankfully not been disrupted. We create our own flavors and get their stamps designed, make some batches, hand-stamp each bag, get them filled, sealed, and shipped. It’s been a lot of work and if it keeps up like this, we’ll finally find ourselves at a point where we need to hire some help. That’s not to let ourselves off the hook from that work, but just to increase our capacity to keep on growing.
“People need to be reminded that they can do anything. Even at times like these. Go out there and get it.”
When we’re within some new version of “normal” in a few weeks or months from now, check out Stefan and Dave’s What’s Pop-in Gourmet storefron on Ferry. Until then, you can try out some batches delivered to your home from their website.