Mike Heary could see the writing on the wall more than two years ago.
The White Lake resident was a skilled tradesman working in the manufacturing industry in a position that saw less demand in a floundering economy. He knew his job wasn’t going to be around forever, so when he was laid off in August 2009, it took him less than a month to create his own business.
That business is now exceeding the financial goals he and his wife, Judy, had set in late 2009. Now Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn is growing its product line and hiring part-time employees to handle the increasing demand at farmers markets and other events throughout southeastern Michigan.
“I never worked this hard at any job in my life, but I really love it because we’re working for ourselves,” said Heary. “In the first year, we just wanted to pay our bills to make sure we could stay in our home. But now we are achieving our goals and see more opportunity for growth."
He and his wife appear at events and shows and farmers markets in such communities as Lake Orion, Holly, Northville and everywhere in between. They work six or seven days a week, making their products on site using a 10-by-10-inch pop-up canopy, kettle, sifting table and ingredients. Venues like including the Hearys because they are completely mobile in nature and don’t require water or electricity to make their products.
Heary had had an interest in making kettle corn for some time. In the months before he was laid off, he approached kettle corn vendors at the farmers market in Northville and at other festivals to inquire about how to get started in the business. He and his family, including Grand Valley State University freshman and International Academy West graduate Megan and Lakeland High School junior Mitchell, had bought kettle corn in past years at the annual Milford Memories festival, and Heary was intrigued.
“Some of the (vendors) were helpful, so when we decided to start the business, we had some idea of what to expect,” he said. “Our first job was at the Fisk Farm Festival in September 2009.”
It didn’t take long before Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn was appearing at other farmers markets at Canterbury Village in Lake Orion and in Oxford. These days, the Hearys have to turn down some work because the demand is so high.
"All these business opportunities take time to research. Right now, I'm too busy popping corn," Heary said with a laugh.
The Hearys have added cheese corn to their product line, and in mid-September, Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn debuted a caramel corn product in Oxford.
Kettle corn wasn’t the only business endeavor Mike and Judy investigated, but given the amount of capital they had to invest, their desired return and the turnaround time before profitability was achieved, it made the most sense.
“We explored several different ideas, but they would have cost way too much money to get started,” Heary said.
Both Mike and Judy are certified kitchen managers, a designation obtained through Oakland County. Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn operates as a licensed mobile restaurant, and the Hearys carry $1 million in liability insurance. All these certifications allow them to make their products on site, which is an important part of the sales process.
“We’ll bag our kettle corn and bring it to these shows, but there is nothing that draws attention like making it right there,” Heary said. “Customers come over because of the smell, and it draws attention.”
Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn sells its products online at sskettlecorn.com, and the Hearys are considering other ways of growing sales. They have received offers from locally owned grocery stores to distribute their products but will have to meet certain state regulations that likely will be part of that growth strategy in the coming months. The Hearys have also considered opening a retail storefront in the community. But those strategies would require hiring full-time employees, which is another growing pain that the family will have to consider.
“There is no worry about a lack of work — because we’re working all the time — but it comes down to a lack of personnel,” Heary said. “That, and Judy and I need to deal with the fear of taking that next big step. But we’ll get there.”