Jolly Time: Not Just Popcorn but a Unique Way of Business

JOLLY TIME Popcorn Shares Profits With Employees

Sioux City, Iowa, once promoted itself as a metropolis-in-the-making, a new Chicago straddling the westward bend of the Missouri River.

It was a natural crossroads for grain and livestock. The city's scales weighed innumerable tons of wheat and corn. Rail yards fanned out across the flats off downtown, connecting meatpacking plants with stockyards that, at one point, processed more animals per day than any other in the world.

Grain brokers winnowed down to a handful by 1980. The stockyards closed in 2001. Only one major meatpacker remains in town. The city's fortunes ebbed as family-owned businesses gave way to corporations and the consolidation of American industry.

But for 100 years, the American Pop Corn Co., and the Smith family that runs it, has stood against that tide.

Chapter 1: All in the Family

At Sioux City's northwestern edge sits a cluster of storage bins and cleaning towers, one bearing the red Jolly Time pennant. Some buildings are newer, but the facility has been churning out popcorn since 1916 when Carlton and Garry Smith's great-grandfather moved his just two-year-old American Pop Corn Co. here.

A small-town entrepreneur from Odebolt, Iowa, Cloid Smith invested in local land after selling a fledgling regional phone company to Bell Telephone in 1912. He took a job with Bell in Sioux City, but leased the land to a tenant farmer, who put in a crop that grew famously well around Odebolt: popcorn.

Credit: Daniel Iske
Most corn, called "dent corn," goes back into the agrarian cycle to fatten livestock or, in the case of sweet corn, to people's tables. Popcorn is a different plant, with traditionally smaller stalks and ears bearing distinctive tiny, round kernels with super-dense shells. Those shells pack in internal moisture, the key trigger that, upon heating, explodes and turns a kernel inside-out.

Back then, popcorn sold at the general store in bulk, unprocessed, and had yet to be exploited as a branded product. Cloid Smith would change all that.

In 1914, when a buyer lowballed his tenant on a crop, Cloid stepped in. With the help of his teenage son Howard, he processed and brokered the harvest. The father-and-son team began selling popcorn wholesale to street vendors, carnivals and, of course, movie theaters.

But in 1925, Cloid found the point of differentiation that would make his fledgling brand, now called Jolly Time, a household name. He commissioned a proprietary canister designed to seal in kernels' all-important moisture. The packaging promised: "It's guaranteed to pop!"

Other brands arrived on the shelves, but Jolly Time pioneered marketing popcorn to consumers. In the 1930s, the company sponsored its own NBC radio variety show, General Jolly Time and the Pop Corn Colonels.

Danny Kaye and Bob Hope hawked Jolly Time, and as television brought entertainment increasingly into homes, the company deftly utilized the new marketing opportunity. It put bowls of Jolly Time in the hands of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. It became a mainstay on daytime game shows as a prize giver and sponsor. The company also bolstered home use with on-pack promotions offering $1 electric poppers.

The Smith family remained at the helm throughout. In 1939, Howard took the reins of the company. Then, in 1966 his sons Chesley and Wrede split the chairman and president positions. By 2002, their respective sons, Carlton and Garry, took over those same positions. Garry's two sisters and a brother all sit on the company board.

Now, a fifth generation is at work at American Pop Corn. Carlton's daughter Kendra consults on marketing. Garry's niece BJ spearheads Jolly Time Koated Kernels, a boutique sub-brand of pre-popped corn with ultra-indulgent toppings. Garry's sons Rett and Alex work in sales and logistics.

"The only reason I can imagine selling this business is if we couldn't compete as a family-owned company, didn't have enough money, enough advertising, I don't know the circumstance," Garry says. "And we've had some downtimes when it's been tough, but there's just no desire."

Chapter 2: Field to Living Room

When Carlton and Garry joined the family business in the 1970s, it was still a lean outfit. The entire Jolly Time line had consisted of a blue canister for white popcorn and red one for yellow popcorn until 1957, when Howard finally agreed to add plastic bags.

The advent of the microwave changed everything, and Wrede Smith saw its potential. Popcorn went from the occasional kitchen-intensive family treat into a handy snack people could make in a few minutes and eat every day. "We transformed overnight from grain handlers into food processors," Carlton says.

In 1984, the company brought out its first microwave popcorn. It worked initially with a specialty packager in Chicago instead of investing in machines that might wind up gathering dust if the category didn't take off.

But it did. Sales grew 20 percent a year through the 1980s and early 90s. In 1988, American Pop Corn built a dedicated microwave popcorn plant to keep up with the demand and the competition.

Credit: Daniel Iske
That competition became fierce as waves of mergers and acquisitions remapped the packaged goods business. One of the biggest names in popcorn, Orville Redenbacher, sold out to Hunt-Wesson Foods in 1976 and changed hands four more times, eventually landing at food giant ConAgra. By the mid-1990s, Redenbacher settled in as the No. 1 brand, General Mills' Pop Secret at No. 2.

Jolly Time, at No. 3, started drawing suitors.

Buyout offers come weekly, Garry says. "We get a letter or an email, ‛I represent a client who has an interest in an acquisition of your company,' and we have a form letter that says ‛no.'"

"It never went to a Step Two," Carlton says.

Third place is fine with the Smiths. Corporate competitors' sales may triple those of Jolly Time, but the Smiths' independence allows them to invest in farmers and factories uninhibited by pressures to slash overhead, "realize efficiencies" and show quarterly dividends.

"We have nobody to answer to, so if our quarterly number is bad, nobody knows it," Garry says with a big laugh. "And, y'know what, if my brother bitches, I'll give him the keys and he can run the place."

Chapter 3: Kitchen Table Connection

At it's heart, The American Pop Corn Co. is a field-to-factory operation dependent on relationships with farmers like Pat Green, who grows popcorn outside Homer, Nebraska.

His grandfather was famously the first farmer to sign a contract with Cloid Smith in the 1930s. Pat's father continued the tradition. Pat helped work the farm as a kid, but after earning an accounting degree in the early 1970s, he took a job with Terminal Grain in Sioux City buying corn and soybeans from farmers.

The company changed hands twice during his tenure, and he wound up working for an agribusiness giant. Green found himself training MBAs who "didn't know the first thing about farming," he says. "At the time I started, there were 22 grain companies, and when I got done working in Sioux City, there was only three. It was pretty stressful."

When his dad wound down full-time farming in the late '70s, Green returned to the farm. This year he committed to 81 acres of popcorn. As his grandfather and father did, Green signs a contract to grow Jolly Time popcorn each spring.

"They would come out and sit at the kitchen table," Green recalls, "and if dad wanted to plant one acre or a thousand, didn't make any difference to them. One is as important as a thousand."

Jeff Naslund, the company's field department manager, is the man across the table these days. He matches hybrid strains to methods and soil conditions of each farmer and monitors the crops through the summer.

The hybrids, the result of a program American Pop Corn began in the '70s, showed their mettle in late June. A violent storm came through the region bringing softball-sized hail. It ravaged some nearby Jolly Time growers' fields, and Naslund wrote off unsalvageable acres and penned letters for the growers' crop insurance.

Green avoided the worst of it. Where earlier generations of popcorn might have "gone over," he says, the sturdier hybrid plants weather big storms better. Their backend payoff is palpable too: the hybrids yield 6,000 pounds of corn per acre versus 2,500 pounds in generations past.

"Somewhere along the line when you're doing business, something's going to go wrong," Naslund says. "And not everybody handles it with integrity. And doing the job I do, you can do that, knowing you've got full support and you don't have to be someone you're not. If [farmers] make money and do well, we normally get quality popcorn -- they kind of go hand-in-hand."

When they took the helm in 2002, Gary and Carlton wrote a vision statement to codify the company's longtime operating philosophy. The prime tenet: "The culture of our company is family." That didn't just mean the Smith family.

American Pop Corn expends few resources on training because turnover is rare, Carlton says, and that's because the company reinvests in its workforce. In addition to a profit-sharing program, it gives employees a 100 percent family-coverage health insurance plan -- kicking in after only three months on the job -- and a choice of two retirement packages.

"Nobody has a benefit package that can match American Pop Corn Company," Garry says proudly.

That resonated with Kelly Golden. A machine operator in the microwave plant, Golden came to the company after being laid off from a local cleaning service. Her husband's job at a Sioux City construction firm came with a decent healthcare package, but it was going to cost $300 a month to add her to his plan.

This summer, Golden marked five years at the company. Some weeks before the bonus meeting, she was called in to Carlton's office to choose her service award. She started to pick the Wii console for her grandchildren, but Carlton advised otherwise.

"This is for you," the company chairman said. "Pick something for you." She settled on the Bose speakers. Carlton personally buys the awards for every recipient each year.

When she'd hired on, a co-worker told Golden, "If you're here a year, you'll be here forever." Now, she says, "I'll probably retire from here, because there's not too many places anymore that you get what you get here."


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44 Comments

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BRENDA

Interesting.

November 12 2014 at 5:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jch1369

This is what integrity is! Pay attention corporate America this is what it should be not the screw everybody that corporate America become. Pay attention Wall Street here is a company that really understands the bottom line and shareholder value really is!!!

August 05 2014 at 2:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
darinw40

This is exactly the reason why I bypass all others and buy 2 bags of bulk corn per week...with my wages being stagnant and sever cuts to my food budget to pay other bills, it tastes great, fills little bellies and does nothing to help the mega conglomerates that are ruining this country by outsourcing overseas

August 05 2014 at 5:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Truwriter

The culturally programmed response to this is story is to say that there are not many businesses like that today, but that really fails as an explanation. The skepticism of management and employee is not about rich fat guys making great money, its more about the hostility and suspicions of each other created by other people for their gain. Unions, truly the dinosaur that has failed modern labor,and liability lawyers who seek employees to sue businesses as that is where the lawyers will make their money and active players in the decline. Slip and falls, fake injuries claims of racism, sexism are where the golden 40% share is for lawyers who will exploit the complainant as much as the corporation does. Factory jobs are not skilled labor and in moderan America, reliable unskilled labor is hard to locate, especially urban areas. In the hinterland you can still find people with a work ethic who will work hard..and if you reward them they will remain with you. In urban America the unskilled labor market is addicted to drugs and alcohol, opted for no education and at best is willing to work only as long as it takes to qualify for benefits or to file a lawsuit for real or fabricated reasons. The lawsuit, from lawyers soliciting that acitvity, are the "home run" for the unskilled, a chance to make up something, pretend to be a great worker and to get a horde of lawyers feed on a corporation.Its like the lottery only much more ugly. This was a story about a company of nice people, at labor and management who see responsiblity to each other. It has historically worked and works there. The management, who needs to keep the business open to make money is not at war with the workers who see employement as a benefit and not just a stop on the way to the next rehab or court date. Some argue that illegal aliens are good for America because they want to work. Hard to imagine but could well be true.

August 02 2014 at 5:57 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Truwriter's comment
hsenpfeffer

You are so full of nonsense it is hard to imagine how you do not burst. This company is exceptional in treating the employees with respect. The majority of companies live by the cheap cliche from the b-school whizzes that the ONLY purpose of a company is to make a profit. That is the dogma of salestrash. The real problem with America, its businesses and economy is that they have been taken over by salestrash and marketeering trash who do not have a clue how to produce anything and are only in it to make a bck by any cheap, sleazy means possible. This applies to real estate salestrassh inflating the price of housing and New York investment salestrash wrecking the economy and demanding that honest people bail them out. You whine, whine, whine about unions who try to get a living wage for working people but do not have a single problem with totally non productive salestrash inflating the price of everything beyond affordability while producing absolutely nothing. That is the real problem.

August 02 2014 at 7:15 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
Neil

Wait, wait- your teagagger comment checklist clearly calls for an Odumba reference here. Your screed is not complete without it.

August 03 2014 at 4:12 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
rb

Not many businesses like this anymore. Most companies don't want long term employees who might retire and get a pension...they think it costs too much.

August 02 2014 at 4:55 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
tbplayer44

This Company represents the America I knew as a child. The more Liberal we become, and the more our Government delves in to private business, the more this type of company disappears from existence. Oh - and they dont need Obamacare, because THEY BUILT IT (the Company) THEMSELVES. Liberals say you cannot trust Companys to take care of their employees unless the Govt steps in and forces them to do so. This Company disproves that rhetoric.

August 02 2014 at 3:27 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
endmillll

Its sad the way business treat people anymore,, i worked for a family owend business and they took care of there emplyees,, big corp's dont,, family owens business's look at it like this the emplyees they have made there business.

August 02 2014 at 8:38 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
easttxg1995

Just FYI BLOG followers if you want great popcorn try this place, its located in Gun Barrel City Texas and its called Jalopy Joes Gourmet Popcorn, they have over 50 flavors, there on facebook and have a web site www.jalopyjoespopcorn.com they also have fudge and over 100 flavors of the old time favorites glass bottled sodas

August 01 2014 at 11:54 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
Roads

HyVee stores in our area carry the pre-popped JollyTime. We even wrote the Jolly Time when HyVee ran out to make sure they weren't stopping. We purchase 4-8 bags a month. At $1 a bag it's less than 1/3 the price of other 'fancy' popcorn. Yes, we love it. The Black Pepper corn is best. Would like to see a garlic salt variety.
Absolutely the best stuff for quick easy snacks.

August 01 2014 at 11:34 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
Kay

I think that in all my 70 years that I have only once tried Jolly Time popcorn. Where I live there is a local farmer that produces popcorn and my family has only used that for as long as I can remember. When I was first married my husband picked up a different brand while we were shopping, something that he and his parents usually bought, but I made him put it back and get my usual and local brand. He had to agree it was much better and we used that from then on. Now they even make microwave popcorn,.....yeah! When I was still working, the one building I worked in had a popcorn machine and they bought the same brand that I used only in 20 or 25 lb bags! Everyone agrees it is the best and pops the best also.

August 01 2014 at 8:40 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Kay's comment
wlh1923

Ummmmmm, okaaaay.

August 01 2014 at 10:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply