VALLEY CITY, N.D. — It’s about more than just popcorn.
Colorado Jack Popcorn, which is popped and flavored in Valley City and Devils Lake, N.D., is about offering five delicious flavors. It’s also about family. And, perhaps most importantly, it’s about giving back.
“We wanted to grow it as we had the capability to produce it,” said Kim Engstorm, co-owner of the now nationally-known brand.
The popcorn is sold online and in boutiques, and currently they’re working on increasing their distribution to include grocery and convenience stores.
But, the kernel of the story has to do with family.
When Brian and Kim Engstrom, who farm in Leeds, N.D., started the popcorn business in 2015, they were looking for a way to diversify their already successful processing of beans and barley. They quickly realized that producing the popcorn — which comes in white cheddar, caramel, white cheddar and jalapeno, sea salt and butter, and a mix of caramel, white cheddar and jalapeno — could provide an opportunity for their son Cullen, who was born with intellectual and behavioral disabilities, to work for the family business.
Enter Mary Simonson, executive director of Open Door Center in Valley City, a group home Cullen moved to approximately a year ago. They provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities, and their activity center has been the site of making polyurethane bags for the U.S. Navy.
When that business slowed down after many years, Simonson said, an ODC board member’s neighbor made them aware of Colorado Jack Popcorn. Twelve of ODC’s estimated 100 residents, including Cullen, now work part-time popping, flavoring, packaging and shipping the product. They handle all online, fundraising and small store sales.
“It gives them identity,” Simonson said. “It gives them pride, and it gives them money. They get paid every two weeks, just like I do.”
There is also a production facility in Devils Lake, which handles larger truckload and pallet orders, and the raw popcorn itself is produced in Colorado and Nebraska. But don’t underestimate the importance of what’s happening in Valley City.
“It’s something we always wanted to do, give back,” Kim said. “That we were able to get [Cullen] involved in the family business, and also help other individuals like Cullen, it’s huge for us.”
Chace Engstrom, Brian and Kim’s daughter, was still in college when her dad told her he was going to start officially making popcorn. Chace has always helped out with the family businesses, but a year ago she officially signed on full time, focusing on marketing, production, human resources, and “a little bit of everything.”
“She does a lot more than that,” Kim said. “She’s actually designed a lot of our packaging, which is a huge task. She’s designed logos for our bean side. She’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades.”
The Engstrom family is so committed to giving back, they’ve officially instituted the Colorado Jack Giveback program. In addition to creating jobs for the residents of Open Door Center, the program offers a 50% return to fundraising groups. The remaining 50% of sales pay wages to ODC residents and staff supervisors, as well as covering operating expenses. Their hope? To support an expansion so even more jobs are created.
Currently, the Colorado Jack Giveback program averages two fundraisers per month.
“We don’t know the exact number of groups [and] fundraisers we have done as they all vary in different ways,” Chace said. “Sometimes it’s just one person and some have done more than one.”
It’s a measure of how diversified the enterprise has become, and how dedicated they are to the idea of enriching quality products, as well as people's lives.
“We have multiple companies associated in one idea,” Chace said.
Colorado Jack Popcorn is produced by the Engstrom-owned CoJack Snack and Pack, which serves as a co-packing plant.
But, the main ideas linking them are compassion and pride, especially when they look at ODC in Valley City.
“We’re proud of all of this,” Kim said. “It’s really what’s driven us to keep doing what we’re doing. We hope all businesses see this, and one day they can all provide opportunities like this.”