Business spans generations
By Joe Reavis
From colonels to kernels” is one of the slogans family members use to describe Deanan Gourmet Popcorn, a Wylie-based business supplying pre-packaged flavored popcorn for fundraising use throughout the continental United States.
Deanan originated with Lt. Col. Dean Alexander (USAF Ret.) and wife Nanella who bought a retail popcorn store in 1979 as a retirement business in which they could
involve their children. The business now is owned by the couple’s five children and involves three generations of the family.
Growing up, Dean fondly remembers them always growing a small patch of popcorn and they’d harvest it. “We always ate a lot of popcorn,” he said. In high school Dean was a projectionist in a local theater and he fondly remembers employees delivering him a bag of fresh popcorn to the booth every once in a while.
Once a fond memory, that passion for popcorn kicked back in as Dean was looking for a business to buy.
“He looked at several options and decided a popcorn shop was as good as anything,” business development officer Karen Alexander said. “It was a place where his teenagers and family could work.”
The company grew to five retail outlets, but switched gears in 1987 when the fundraising program was started. Since then, the retail stores were sold, and operations moved to Wylie.
“We are a factory,” CEO Barbara Alexander Hodge declared.
The company truly is a family business. The five Alexander siblings, four daughters and a son, bought the business from their parents in 2005. Working with Hodge on a daily business are her sister, Janet Alexander Aaron, sister-in-law Karen Alexander, and Barbara’s son Tref, who is in charge of operations. In addition, Janet’s daughter Adriana Aaron, and Karen’s daughters, Sarah and Emily Alexander, work at the business when they are not in school. Dean and Nan moved to Wylie in 2017 to be closer to their children and grandchildren and, according to Karen, they stop by the factory a couple of days a week.
“Janet and I are sisters and have done this forever,” Barbara said. Their sister-in-law joined the firm about 18 months ago after a 30-year career with JCPenney and, after taking some time off work, asked if there was anything she could do at Deanan.
“I grabbed some napkins and started writing down some things,” Barbara recalled, noting that Karen functions as a business development officer while she and Janet manage day-to-day operations.
The CEO worked in the computer industry for 25 years before joining the company in 2004 and spending a year working with her father to learn the ropes.
The siblings credit their parents for taking the initiative to go into business, absorb the setbacks and pass on that knowledge.
Hodge explained that her father got into supplying popcorn for fundraising sales while operating retail outlets at shopping malls in San Antonio. She noted that business was slow in the mornings, so her father had the idea to provide a schoolteacher with several packages of flavored popcorn to be used in a fundraising effort. The popcorn sold quickly and an idea took root.
After transitioning from retail sales to supplying packaged popcorn for fundraising, Deanan moved from a 4,000 square foot production facility in the San Antonio area to Wylie in 2011 because four of the Alexander siblings lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
The second generation was able to take the business and grow it five times bigger than what it was in their dad’s time.
“By 2012 we were making all the flavors here,” Hodge said. “We stick with classics and do a little twist on them.” They make popcorn in 16 flavors from their own recipes.
Flavors include white cheddar, caramel, vanilla in a variety of colors, salsa and cheddar, dark chocolate and kettle corn. White cheddar, caramel and vanilla are the most ordered flavors.
The company initially opened a 5,000 square foot factory at 216 Windco Circle, expanded to 10,000 square feet in 2014, and recently broke ground to double the size of their current facilities.
The factory is laid out into four primary areas: popping, coating, packaging and shipping. The process is part automatic and part manual, and employs 35 people during fall and winter months that are the busiest for fundraising.
Deanan’s product starts with special mushroom variety kernels that pop to a fuller shape and with fewer edges to break away in packages. They use 2,000 pounds of popcorn kernels per shift and can make 1,000 pounds of caramel corn an hour. Popcorn destined for a flavor such as caramel is dumped into slurry vat for mixing and popcorn flavors such as cheddar are coated in dry tumblers.
A process employed to ensure a high quality product sifting the flavored popcorn to remove small bits. Popcorn from Deanan is sifted twice to further improve the packaged product.
“We are looking for every piece of popcorn in a bag to be perfect,” Barbara said.
During the busy months, now, the factory ships two semi-truck loads of product daily to customers.
Over the summer, the company was selected as one of 25 finalists in the HEB Quest for Texas Best. As business development officer, Karen took on the application process that included a written application, in person presentation and videos. One of the videos featured supervisor Kiefer “Lil’ Kernel” performing a rap song that included most of the plant employees and showed the process of producing the product, and another video gave the history of the company and how it has grown.
“The employees put together the rap video,” Karen said. “We were worried about it but in the end, we didn’t change a thing.”
Deanan was not picked as one of the winners, but Karen said as a finalist the supermarket chain is working with them on a plan to sell the gourmet popcorn in the stores.
“They seem committed to making small businesses grow,” she pointed out.
In addition to supplying flavored popcorn for fundraising needs, the company also sells wholesale to retail outlets, can custom label bags for companies and special events, and offers popcorn in decorative tins and canisters.
“The fundraising full-size packet is our lifeblood,” Karen declared.
The business is Go Texan certified and is recognized as a majority women-owned operation.
Because Deanan is not in the retail business, it is located a little off the beaten track. But when you get close, you can follow your nose to find the factory.