This story was originally published on napasonomasbdc.org.
Comet Corn is a popcorn manufacturer producing flavored, organic bagged popcorn. They also vend the product at music and community festivals around Northern California.
Jeff Phillips and Sherry Soleski have created a product that appeals to the foodie-centric nature of the area. They use healthy ingredients and source Northern California kernels. Their product comes as close to the farm-to-table movement as a bagged popcorn can.
Comet Corn came to earth in 2002 when Jeff started offering freshly popped corn from a one-of-a-kind solar and propane popping cart. He had a spice bar of sweet, savory and spicy shakers for seasoning. It took a few years, but festivals proliferated and his number of fans grew. Finally, 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. Comet Corn Popcorn welcomed her business acumen. 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. It is also available through retail outlets from San Francisco to the Oregon border as well as online.
The challenges of growth
In 2014, Comet Corn Popcorn expanded into a new manufacturing facility in Santa Rosa. Then in 2019, Jeff and Sherry first turned to the Napa-Sonoma SBDC because 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 for a misstep.
Working with an SBDC Business Advisor, Jeff and Sherry addressed the numerous uncertainties they had about hiring. The Business Advisor helped them with all the details – how to track employee work time, requirements for rest and meal breaks, and documenting employee performance.
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 compliance requirements, using a timesheet template, and how to ensure new employees sign required employment documentation.
Retooling for a crisis
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.” The event portion of their business at a standstill. They needed to determine their eligibility for funding or financial assistance.
The first order of business 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.
An SBDC Advisor helped Comet Corn secure funding through the Paycheck Protection Program. They also received help 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 five employees.
Working via phone and email, Jeff and Sherry are ramping up retail and online sales to make up for lost income from the festivals. They continue 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 they recently added a store finder to their website so customers can find Comet Corn Popcorn wherever they are.
Comet Corn is locally made, universally loved.Jeff Phillips