Women in Business: Karen Brittain of Karen’s Artisan Popcorn
Each batch of Karen’s popcorn is made fresh, with her own special kettle-cooking technique (shhh, it’s a secret!). Using organic canola and olive oils infuses our popcorn with a light buttery flavor. We personally taste-test each batch for the indulgent standard our customers have come to love. You can find a selection of flavors at our South Burlington, Vermont store.
1.) What’s your business’ origin story? How did it all start?
Growing up, I learned my love of baking from my mom, and the fun science behind cooking from my dad, who’s a food scientist. Combine my excitement for movie watching with my desire for creating in the kitchen, and I was driven to perfect my own popcorn recipe. For years I worked on just the right kettle-cooking technique, experimenting with different oils, popcorns and toppings. Then I discovered it! Just the right delicious mix of herbs, spices, sea salt, and a kettle-cooking formula that infuses a light buttery taste and wonderful popped crunch. Hence, my original flavor, Herbaceous Blend was born!
Like how many small businesses begin, my family and friends told me emphatically that I should be selling my signature popcorn. I had already found my passion for teaching young children, when my comedian/fundraiser-husband, Reg and I found our true home in Vermont. I was so inspired by the beauty in Vermont’s surroundings, the people and the welcoming climate for local business, that I decided, after sixteen years of teaching, it was time to embrace the opportunity. I began Karen’s Artisan Popcorn in 2013, and at the same time had begun learning about the value of organic foods, especially from my local farmers. I set a goal of sourcing 100% of my popcorn kernels from only local organic farms. A year later I was sourcing kernels from one local farm, two years later two local farms and now I source all of my popcorn completely from three local farms! Big thanks to Geo at Hurricane Flats Farm, Steve and Loraine at Tullochgorum Farm and Allen Wilder at Pop Hero Popcorn! What’s even more incredible is that they provide me with FIVE varieties of popcorn and each add their own flavor and texture: nutty red, crisp white, buttery black, crunchy blue and fluffy yellow kernels offering an exceptional gourmet popcorn experience.
I continue to enjoy experimenting with new popcorn flavors, and now have 10 flavors that includes four sweet and four savory such as: Maple Kettle Bliss, Dark Chocolate Coconut and Seeded Rosemary & Garlic. Plus I offer my Gourmet Popcorn Mix, Artisan Popcorn Topping, DIY kits and Party Corny Bags for events and breweries. Every product also happens to be naturally organic, non-GMO, whole grain, vegan, gluten-free and preservative-free. It’s also incredibly scrumptious AND good for you :)! Popcorn has antioxidants in it! Healthy Living has special place in my heart, as it was the very first retailer to carry my popcorn and is where we shop, just around the corner from our house! I appreciate the customers who value enjoying a local organic popcorn treat crafted by a local woman-owned business.
2.) What is the most rewarding part of owning your own business?
I’d have to say there are three parts that most excite me about owning my own business. One is finding out how my teaching skills have been able to translate into different facets of being a business owner. I like the challenge and creativity of organizing my business in every realm, and being the problem solver. The other part is working with local farmers and suppliers to source my organic ingredients. It feels really good to have these partnerships and be a participant of the local economy on this level. The third part is getting to meet my customers in person at store tastings, farmers market and events. The feedback I get has been so valuable towards understanding what people are looking for and need. The fact that gluten-free customers are thankful to have a snack alternative, or that certain flavors I’ve created people are so excited to share with their loved ones and brings them together on their movie night. My customers know I create every single bag by hand, from start to finish, with artisan love and care.
3.) What are some of the challenges?
Figuring out resources and answers to the areas of being a sole proprietor that I either have never done before or are not in my wheelhouse. Sometimes the answers end up being easy and sometimes they are longer challenges that help me grow as person and as a business owner. For example, bookkeeping was not my strong suit, but through networking, I found a fellow small business owner in Williston, Eve Dubois at Numberworks, who helped me set up my bookkeeping which allowed my business to run how it should. When my business grew I needed to find a commercial kitchen to move to, which was quite the search, but finally my fellow vendors at the Burlington Farmers Market helped me network and find a shared kitchen. There are long hours, and it can be tricky to balance time to be with family or even get my daily exercise in, but I feel really fortunate to be my own boss and do work I absolutely love.
4.) Name one company or business owner that you really admire and why.
For me it was actually a group of business owners at first: Green Mountain Mustard, Lindemann’s Totes, Vermont Toffee Crunch Co and Benito’s Hot Sauce. They were vendors I would see at farmers markets and in the store that I either talked to or admired in person and on social media for how they shared their personal take on their unique products. Vermont Brownie Company’s story was inspiring to me, as I could see the two-woman owned business’ growth and aspired to follow a similar path. One of the owners, Shawna, kindly agreed to chat with me when I first started out and offered some great food business advice. As I started to grow my business they all had a hand in helping me realize how the dream of sharing your product and talent is more attainable than I thought, if you’re willing to put the work into the steps and growth.
5.) What advice do you have for other women out there that might be thinking of starting their own endeavor?
I would first advise, lead with your passion. You are your brand, find out what makes you and your product stand out and use that to create genuine connections with your customers. They will keep coming back! The best way to hone this passion, if you don’t have a business background is to get a business advisor. There are many community based groups that offer valuable advising. They can help you lay the groundwork for your business infrastructure. I had a wonderful advisor, who had owned her own company, and was great with numbers. She she made all the difference in how I began my journey. She asked me great questions that I needed to ask myself and helped me figure out how my product, and my take, fit into the landscape. She also helped me figure out pricing so that I could pay myself, which is a huge part of working for yourself. Lastly I would say keeping a journal or photos of your success as you grow and learn is rewarding to look back on, and can feed your soul when the going gets tough. My family and friends have also been a source of strength for me, cheering me on, so share with them your success and struggles with them. It’s hard work, but immensely rewarding to work for yourself and share your hard work with customers who are so glad you do.