Napa Sonoma SBDCSanta Rosa and Napa, California

“The SBDC has been amazing,” says Sherry Soleski. The Business Advisor [Cathy Balach] walked us through every step.”

Jeff Phillips and Sherry Soleski, the Popcorn People

Comet Corn is a popcorn manufacturer producing flavored, organic bagged popcorn and also vending at music and community festivals around Northern California.

The popcorn people – Jeff Phillips and Sherry Soleski – have created a product that appeals to the foodie-centric nature of the area. Using healthy ingredients and sourcing Northern California kernels, the product comes as close to the farm-to-table movement, as a bagged popcorn can.

Comet Corn came to earth in 2002 when Phillips started offering freshly popped corn from a one-of-a-kind solar and propane popping cart with a spice bar of sweet, savory and spicy shakers for seasoning. It took a few years, but as festivals proliferated, and the number of fans grew he was able to feel confident that he could make a go of the business full-time.

In 2007, Sherry sold her catering business of 26 years and jumped onto the comet tail, to add her business acumen to Comet Corn Popcorn. Jeff and Sherry extended the reach of the business by adding bagged corn, while also exploring new flavor options. Their popcorn is now sold in many locations in Sonoma County – and is available through retail outlets from San Francisco to the Oregon border, as well as online.

In 2014 Comet Corn Popcorn expanded into a new manufacturing facility in Santa Rosa – which they lovingly call the ‘pop shop’.

In 2019, Jeff and Sherry first turned to the Napa-Sonoma SBDC when they needed to grow. The business was expanding more than they could handle alone - it was time to hire help. But they didn’t have experience with this and were concerned about the legalities – and the potential of making a misstep.

The next challenge came in 2020 with the emergence of COVID-19 and the shuttering of retail outlets and festival cancellations. Says Sherry, “we were like a fish out of water, trying to figure out the finances.” With the event portion of their business at a standstill, they needed to determine their eligibility for funding or financial assistance.

In 2019, working with an SBDC Business Advisor, Jeff and Sherry addressed the numerous uncertainties they had about hiring in order to grow their business. The Business Advisor addressed their many questions about all the details – how to track employee work time, requirements for rest and meal breaks, and documenting employee performance.

When Jeff and Sherry asked for help again in 2020, the immediate emphasis was on finances. The first order was to assess and understand the available government funding to get through the early months of the shutdown. Then, to start looking at any options for growth that would be effective in the face of the pandemic.

Jeff and Sherry were able to make this first big step towards growth with the addition of new staff. “The SBDC has been amazing,” says Sherry. The business advisor walked us through every step.” This included many details from compliance requirements, to using a timesheet template, to how to ensure new employees sign required employment documentation.

The second time around, an SBDC Advisor helped Comet Corn secure funding through the Payroll Protection Program, as well working on the application and approval process for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan. This funding was the critical glue that helped them stay in business, including retaining their now-five employees.

Working via phone and email, they continue improving the business through retail and online sales to make up for lost income from the festivals. They are stepping up their efforts online and wholesaling through grocery stores, while still developing ways to sell at in-person events – and looking forward to the day when festivals will start again.

Today Comet Corn is carried in 17 retail locations throughout Santa Rosa alone. They are expanding their online operations, with a web store and added a store finder to their website so customers can find Comet Corn Popcorn wherever they are. Says Jeff, “Comet Corn is locally made, universally loved.” SBDC Business Advisors are happy to have been part of that success.

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Funded in part through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration. All opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SBA or HSU Sponsored Programs Foundation.