popping perfection

Popcorn has never tasted so good to Lavonne Sanders, an entrepreneur who has turned popping golden kernels of corn into a lucrative business venture. As president and CEO of Popcorn and More Inc., Sanders’ keen sense of taste and his passion for doing his best have propelled his company to new heights.

Popcorn and More has created a name for itself with its prepackaged MixMatch Gourmet Cheese and Caramel Popcorn. The snack is sold in a number of venues including Marshall Field’s, Walgreens, Jewel-Osco, and Loews Theatres. Incorporated in 1996, the firm made $2 million in revenues in 2004, up from the previous year’s number of $1.7 million.

Prior to starting Popcorn and More, Sanders worked at the ICEE Co. in Quality Control Development & Sales, where he is credited with formulating syrups used in the ICEE machines. Inspiration to go into popcorn came quite unexpectedly to Sanders one day while attending a sales call in downtown Chicago. “I noticed a long line of people waiting to enter a local popcorn shop and from that moment on, I knew that popcorn would be in my future,” recalls Sanders. He immediately went to work developing a formula for his gourmet popcorn.

Although Sanders, 66, knew very little about popcorn, he did possess the gift of formulation, “I can go on taste alone to determine what ingredients I need to get the flavor I want.” Sanders continued to work full time at ICEE during the first three years of business, before taking an early retirement.

After six months, his recipe was complete. He took a $50,000 loan against his house, borrowed $10,000 from family and friends, and used $4,000 of his savings to purchase equipment, supplies, and raw materials — popcorn, oil, cheese, and sugar.

The Dolton, Illinois-based company started out in a small storefront and successfully sold its popcorn in bulk. However, after 9-11, sales plummeted 70% when customers began to fear purchasing nonpackaged foods. Sales quickly rebounded when Sanders packaged the popcorn in individual, clear bags and began manufacturing it for distribution to other retailers.

However, increasing demand for the cheese and caramel combo made it difficult for the small operation to fill the numerous orders. It was a challenge for the popcorn manufacturer to get the money needed to support the company’s growing pains. Sanders had to apply to three banks before he was finally offered a $150,000 line of credit and a $100,000 loan. The business mogul used these funds toward working capital to purchase new equipment and additional supplies. He also moved into a larger, 8,000-square-foot facility, where his staff of 40 currently operates.

The turning point for the company came in 2002 when Sanders received a call from Walgreens, a national retail pharmacy chain, requesting an appointment to discuss his product. Shortly thereafter, Walgreens became one of Popcorn and More’s largest accounts and a major catalyst for subsequent business.

Today, the snack can also be found in casinos, hospitals, convenience stores, and shopping malls throughout the Chicago area. The company has profitable contracts in