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Our Wisconsin Magazine features Poppin' Z's

Ma Kettle

Challenged by life, this resourceful mother recognized a good idea when it popped up.

I NEVER DREAMED something as simple as popcorn could brighten my family's world, but around 20 years ago, I couldn't foresee the misfortune about to befall my son Danny.

His life changed forever one cold February night when he was 2 1/2. I tucked my sweet little boy into bed, kissed him good night and closed the door.

Overnight something happened to Danny and when he woke the next morning, he could barely function. He spent a week in intensive care before the doctors determined an infection had caused brain damage.

Once back home, Danny was like a newborn. He had to relearn how to sit up, walk and hold a cup. What followed was years of doctors' appointments, therapy and wondering what the future held.

Searched for Career Paths

When Danny was 11, a friend and I watched our children enjoy therapeutic horseback riding at SMILES (Special Methods in Learning Equine Skills) in Darien. We brainstormed how to find a path to meaningful employment that matched our children's skills.

"What about selling kettle corn?" suggested my friend JoAnn Juska.

"What's kettle corn?" I replied.

She explained this popcorn snack, sweetened as it pops in a large kettle, is popular at fairs and festivals around Wisconsin. Somehow the craze hadn't reached Milton, where we lived.

After a little research, I was convinced this might be the perfect opportunity for Danny and our family. Even better, it didn't cost a fortune to buy the equipment.

In 2011, we started Poppin' Z's Kettle Corn. We applied to be a vendor at the Brown County Fair in De Pere and were accepted. Then reality hit: Vendors were required to be open from 10 am to midnight throughout the 5-day run.

How could Danny, 15 at the time, his 14-year-old brother, Matthew and me (old enough to know better) handle it?

My brother, Paul Minnis lives near De Pere. When he learned of our plight he rallied members of his church to help. I went from near panic to being happily overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers. More than 2 dozen volunteers from St. Paul Episcopal in Suamico helped staff 4-hour shifts in the tent!

So we started making kettle corn. Lots of it. Danny would scoop it into bags and place them on shelves. Come the second year, I had a concession trailer. Over the next 6 years, people at this fair and others got to know Danny, who is nonverbal but positive in his outlook.

Danny loves making kettle corn, but fairs and festivals are seasonal. What could we do the rest of the year? Up popped a related idea: gourmet popcorn.

In 2014, my tow boys and I popped our first batch. As we created a few flavors, I found a commercial kitchen, because who wants the house to smell like popcorn 24 hours a day?

Now we have more than 50 flavors, including Green & Gold, Badgerland, Cheddarific, and Baconator. Our popcorn is popular for buffets, weddings, corporate events, parties, trade show giveaways and sold in gift boxes.

Danny's friends at CP Center in De Pere, where he's in adult day services, challenged him to come up with new flavors. Caramel Coconut, Dreamsicle, Tuxedo and Caramel Cashew grew from that. His friends were so surprised when Danny brought samples to them!

Popcorn with a Purpose

Today Danny is 24 and staying busy all year. Matthew, now 22, went to school for business management. There could be a storefront in our future...to help Danny and also to employ others like him.

Twenty years ago, when I held my little boy in my arms, I didn't dream of a popcorn business. But God creates paths you were meant to follow. Danny's illness started my journey to advocate for the disabled.

 

 

 

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