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June 5, 2008
Clients Featured in San Antonio Express News

Success pops up 

Web Posted: 05/28/2008 08:27 PM CDT

By Adolfo Pesquera

The way Tara Staglik describes her life is that she ditched a career as a law clerk to be a popcorn snob.
 
She’s pretty good at it.

Papa Dean Neugent, a small businessman Staglik’s adoptive mother married a year ago, was looking to retire. Staglik, 36, was given an opportunity to buy. She called up her birth mother in San Francisco and asked if she wanted to go in as her partner.

The result? A one-shop operation in Alamo Heights that had done modestly well for 24 years and suddenly has become an “overnight” sensation.

“Papa Dean sees our numbers and just shakes his head,” Staglik said, noting his occasional comment: “How?”

How indeed. Using March as a typical “slow” month — as opposed to December, which is a mad scramble — the shop used to do about $3,000 in gross sales. This March it grossed $28,000. Annual sales have nearly quadrupled from the $100,000 made in 2006, Staglik said.

Staglik’s success grew out of a three-pronged strategy: create an identity, find new markets and upgrade their Web-based operations technology.

What Papa Dean’s always had going for it was a wide variety of unique flavors. Art Meier, the popcorn chef, can make anything taste good, although a few flavors must be made when no one else is around.

“When he’s making habanero, it’s so not fun,” Staglik said. “It’s like tear gas. He makes it in the early morning or after hours.”

But Papa Dean’s didn’t even have its own logo. It sold as generic popcorn in deco tins. Staglik wanted a Texas brand popcorn with more Texas flavors. She turned to a childhood friend from her youth growing up in Pearsall and came up with Texas Honey Pecan, made with a pure mesquite honey made by the Youngbloods, fourth-generation beekeepers.

“It’s our biggest seller,” Staglik said.

Thus Papa Dean’s Popcorn was born. The logo includes an Alamo motif-shaped beeline with a honeybee in the right corner of a buckle-shaped oval.

Staglik also remodeled the shop.

“It was so clinical looking — white, off-white and gray,” she lamented.


Instead of just selling tins, Staglik began offering special occasion bags for parties of all kinds. A popcorn bag as a birth announcement — “Look who just popped into the world!” — was one of her ideas that took off.

Staglik, an exuberant spirit with a flair for mischief, had ideas other than saving birds when she came up with the idea of replacing uncooked rice at weddings with “wedding popcorn.” (Urban legend has it that birds will explode from eating uncooked rice, which the USA Rice Federation says isn’t true.)

“You can really get some distance with popcorn. What can you do with rice? You can pelt a bride at 25 feet with a popcorn kernel,” Staglik boasted, not to mention the color of popcorn can match any the bride comes up with for her wedding day theme.

Katherine Graves, 54, is Staglik’s birth mother and partner. A former executive secretary, her role is handling corporate accounts and the shop’s three employees. She leaves marketing to Staglik.

“Tara is extremely creative and personable to a fault,” Graves said. “She can handle the toughest of customers.”

But they couldn’t handle the December rush. Staglik had gone to San Antonio-based World & Web to revamp their Web site. Between the walk-in traffic and the Internet orders, Papa Dean’s suddenly was too successful.

“I called up Garth Dennis,” Staglik said, referring to World & Web’s founder. “I said, ‘We’re drowning here. What can you do for us?’.”

That same day, Dennis patched the Web site into Ifbyphone, a Skokie, Ill.-based phone applications service.

“It’s like having a virtual receptionist that is collecting information from your customers,” explained Ifbyphone CEO Irv Shapiro. “So when you get to them, you have additional information and you can handle their order more effectively.”

Staglik said the service rescued the shop’s holiday season. And it gave Papa Dean’s much more information on clients than staff could have acquired under such rush circumstances.

While the shop itself has been something of an unusual success, the business partnership is just as unusual.

Staglik’s adoptive mom, May Nell Neugent, set out to find Staglik’s birth mom when Staglik still was a teen.

Neugent tracked Graves down when Staglik was 19, and Staglik has been in touch with her birth mom ever since.

 When Staglik was looking for a partner, she turned to Graves, knowing she was ready to take some new direction in her life.

“She left San Francisco for popcorn,” Staglik said. “That’s faith.”

But that faith has been rewarded. Staglik describes the Internet growth as “gangbusters.” Papa Dean’s is marketed as an elite popcorn line and it’s getting national accounts. M-A-C Cosmetics ordered 2,000 gallons of Hot Pink Bubble Gum popcorn to send to its distributors when the company rolled out a new line, Staglik said.

And the staff for recording artist Tori Amos placed an order when she was in San Antonio last November.

“They called and just had one question — do we use air or oil? A lot of places use air, but we use oil,” Staglik said. “Three weeks later, Tori e-mails us directly. I wrote the delivery greeting on her behalf: ‘Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad.’.”

Staglik, self-described Chief Popcorn Gal, sent along a pink ringer T-shirt with the inscription “popcorn snob.” Staglik sent a note to Amos’ parents asking them to give her the shirt.

 “Someday, she’s going to wear it on stage,” Staglik said confidently.

Visit Mysa.com

 


June 5, 2008
Clients Featured in San Antonio Business Journal

Popcorn retailer finds ingredients to success 

Friday, May 30, 2008

San Antonio Business Journal by Mike W. Thomas


Sometimes the ingredients for a successful business venture extend beyond the product itself.

Tara Staglik, Garth Dennis and Katherine GravesSuch was the case for Papa Dean's Popcorn, the gourmet popcorn retailer in Alamo Heights. The company, which today has about $400,000 in revenue and employs five people fulltime, realized that it needed help managing its burgeoning customer base.

It all came to a head during the weeks before Christmas when a line of customers regularly stretched out the door and around the corner, and the phone was ringing off the wall. While it was a good problem to have, especially for a company that had been doing about onetenth that volume of business the year before, coowner Tara Staglik was terribly upset by all of the missed calls and turned to a local Web designer for help.

Garth Dennis, owner of San Antonio based World & Web Marketing, had been brought in a couple of months earlier to help redesign Papa Dean's Web site. Now he was being called on to help with the spike in call volume that was threatening to put a crimp in the company's blossoming sales.

Dennis knew just who to call. As a reseller for Skokie, Ill. -based Ifbyphone, a telephone application company, he was familiar with their products aimed at bringing enterprise-level telecommunications technology to small business customers.

Soon, he had Papa Dean's hooked up with a virtual receptionist platform that routed all the company's calls through a series of menu items, answering simple questions and routing them to the company's e-commerce Web site before allowing the few callers who still insisted on speaking to a live person through to the store.

"One morning I was freaking out and almost in tears because I couldn't keep up with the phone calls. It was insane," Staglik says. "Ifbyphone came to our rescue."

Ifbyphone's virtual receptionist helped to ease the pressure on in person customer service and gave call in customers, both existing and prospective, more information, Staglik adds.

Staglik says much of her company's recent growth is attributable to its upgraded Web presence since Dennis helped refashion Papa Dean's Web site last October. Sales have boomed by nearly 200 percent since Staglik and her partner, Katherine Graves, took over the business about one year ago. A year ago in March, they had about $2,000 in sales. This past March, they brought in $28,000 in revenues.

Papa Dean's has its roots in The Corn Popper chain of stores that began in 1958 in Tulsa, Okla. The first San Antonio store arrived nearly 25 years ago. Then, in 1998, Dean Neugent, who had retired from being a regional manager for Mrs. Baird's Bread, bought the local store and renamed it Papa Dean's. He saw the store as something to keep him busy in his retirement and it was mostly supported by the local community in Alamo Heights.

People liked the traditional way the popcorn was prepared using corn oil and some of the original corn popping equipment circa 1958.

When Neugent was ready to retire last year, he found a willing buyer in his new stepdaughter. Neugent, a widower, had married Staglik's mother, also widowed, the year before.

With some financial support from her husband Steve, who owns San Antonio Armature Works, a local motor repair and rebuilding company, Staglik set about rebranding the company with a new logo, Web site (www.papadeans.com), new popcorn flavors and much more. But first she decided to call on her birth mother for help.

Graves is Staglik's birth mother who gave her up for adoption when she was born. Staglik grew
up in San Antonio with her adoptive family. With the encouragement of her adoptive mother,
Mary Nell, she managed to find her birth mother when she was 19 and they have been close
friends ever since. Graves even served as a bride's maid in Staglik's wedding.

Then last year, Staglik invited Graves to be her new business partner and so Graves moved from San Francisco to San Antonio to help with the new business.

Graves has helped design a new look for the storefront, giving it a family-friendly "Cheers" atmosphere with a popcorn bar where walk-in patrons can sample "shots" of the different popcorn flavors in disposable plastic cups. One wall is covered with Polaroid pictures of neighborhood children who bring their friends to the store to sample the wares. The Popcorn Gals, as Staglik and Graves like to refer to themselves, have come up with a number of new flavors of popcorn, including several that are unique to the San Antonio area. One is a honeypecan blend that uses a particular brand of honey from a company in Pearsall, Texas, where the bees are raised on mesquite rather than the more common clover. This gives the honey a better taste, Staglik says. Another local flavor is spicy chilelimon. One of the most popular flavors is called the "Chicago Blend," which mixes caramel and orange cheddar flavors to give the popcorn an enticing sweet and salty taste.

Staglik and Graves are constantly thinking up new ways to sell and market their popcorn. They recently struck a deal with the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau to send convention goers special packages of San Antonio-flavored popcorn as thank you gifts. They also have grown their business by packaging different flavors of popcorn to use as party favors, birth announcements and much more.

The packages can be made to fit any order with specially designed labels and even special "kernels of wisdom," similar to fortune cookie notes, inserted into each bag featuring quotes from various Texas musicians, artists, and historical figures.

Staglik says she has a long-term vision to expand the business and already has her eyes on a spot along the River Walk where the duo can sell their tins of popcorn to local tourists.

"The smell of popcorn is like a magnet," Graves says. "We can attract lots of new customers with a location downtown. A lot of our business growth has been due to word of mouth from people who love the experience we give them."

The rapid growth in sales has helped Papa Dean's to weather the run-up in commodity prices that is impacting food retailers across the nation. Staglik notes that the price of corn and corn oil have both increased substantially this past year. A 50-pound bag of unpopped popcorn that cost $13 a year ago costs $17 now, she says. But because sales volumes have gone up so significantly, they have not had to raise their prices. Currently, a 3.5 gallon tin of flavored popcorn costs about $31, depending on the flavors and the cost to produce it. They also sell a smaller 2.5 gallon tin and a much larger 6.5 gallon tin. In addition, the popcorn can be sold separately in sealed plastic bags of any size.

"The thing I love about being a small 'mom-and-mom' shop is that we are not bound by corporate restrictions," Staglik says. "If a customer wants something different, we can figure it out for them without having to seek permission from someone else."

Papa Dean's Popcorn
What: Gourmet popcorn retailer
Where: 6484 N. New Braunfels, San Antonio 78209
Tel.: 8778557272
Web site: www.papadeans.com

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