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Now They're Cookin'

Couple Make Popcorn Their Bread and Butter

June 17, 1998|KAREN E. KLEIN

Dennis Mazzuca was a long-haul truck driver until an injury left him unable to drive a big rig. Two years ago, he invested his savings in a business selling kettle-cooked popcorn at street markets and special events. Today his customers stand in line as long as 45 minutes to pay $6 for a large bag. Mazzuca and his wife, Gayla, say the investment they made in quality ingredients, marketing and equipment has paid off. Gayla Mazzuca was interviewed by freelance writer Karen E. Klein.

We put a lot of money into this business so that everything we do exceeds codes and looks nicer and better than anything else. That has helped us tremendously. We've seen a lot of our competitors slap their operations together, and you just can't do something halfway like that and expect to make a dollar.

Our popcorn is lightly caramelized, not as sweet as Cracker Jack or Fiddle Faddle. My husband purchased the recipe that uses sugar, corn oil, salt and popcorn. It is cooked up over high heat in big, specially designed kettles stirred with huge paddles. We use special popcorn kernels that are bigger than average and designed to be beat to death in the kettle without crumbling.

People tell us they hate waiting in our lines but that it is worth it because this is the best thing they've ever tasted.

A few years ago, there were maybe half a dozen kettle-cooked operations in Southern California. Now there are four or five dozen. People see our lines, calculate our bag prices and figure they can make some quick money. But when they cut corners and do it badly, they ruin it for all the other operations out there.

We have seen people using soybean oil, which costs half what the corn oil costs, but it doesn't taste the same. And we've seen them using regular popcorn that you buy in the supermarket, and it just doesn't come out right.

My husband invested $15,000 to $20,000 in cash reserves to start the company and we've put much more than that into it by now. We purchased a 20-foot cargo trailer to haul all our equipment and product around to the fairs. We had our kettles and gas burners specifically built for this business and we made them stainless steel, because that material complies best with health codes.

We also have invested in marketing. My husband has an old high school friend who owns a graphics design company. They designed a logo and slogan for the business featuring black awnings with yellow lettering and a cowboy with a kettle. We've meshed everything with that and tried not to let it look fly-by-night.

Another marketing idea that's worked is our plastic bag clips. We found ourselves handing out hundreds of business cards that were costing us a lot of money, and in the end we'd find a lot of them on the ground.

We were using white bag locks to seal up the popcorn bags and one day we got the idea of putting our name and phone number on them. So we purchased yellow clips, had our name and telephone number printed on them, and that way everyone who buys a bag has a way to contact us later and they don't need to grab a handful of cards.

My husband believes in doing everything by the book. Everyone has a natural tendency to do things for the least amount of money, take shortcuts, but we've found it doesn't pay to cut corners. You get out of a business what you put into it.

*

If your business can provide a lesson to other entrepreneurs, contact Karen E. Klein at the Los Angeles Times, 1333 S. Mayflower Ave., Suite 100, Monrovia, CA 91016, or send e-mail to kklein6349@aol.com. Include your name, address and telephone number.

* More small-business coverage: D6-8

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

At a Glance

Company: Kettle Kooked Popkorn

Owners: Dennis and Gayla Mazzuca

Nature of business: Makes and distributes specialty popcorn

Location: P.O. Box 1370, Highland, CA 92346-1370

Founded: April 1996

Employees: 5

Annual revenue: $100,000

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