Colleen Weir closely inspects freshly popped caramel corn spread out on a cooling table.
Her goal: Popcorn as close to perfection as possible.
The non-GMO gourmet popcorn that passes Weir’s multistep quality control test is bagged, weighed, sealed, labeled, cased and shipped.
The process plays out more than a dozen times each day at Creekstone Kettle Works. The business, owned by Colleen and her husband, David, is located in Raymond, a town of about 1,000 people in Montgomery County.
Popcorn’s in her blood. Colleen’s dad grew popcorn for Borden Foods and TV Time around the time when microwave popcorn came into the consumer market.
“I can remember riding in the truck with him to deliver to TV Time Foods,” she said. “You walked into this laboratory — all white and very clean. People were wearing white coats, and they would take a sample of your popcorn, pop a test batch and then dump it in this huge bag.”
She took that huge bag filled with popcorn for her birthday treat in elementary school.
“I just remember walking into school and seeing those kids’ eyes — they were huge — when they saw that much popcorn,” she said. “I still am surprised at how excited people get about popcorn.”
Her family farmed in southern Michigan. She recalled raking and baling hay and helping with pigs. She also participated in 4-H and worked as a seed corn detasseler and deroguer for her dad and neighbors.
When her parents lost the farm in Michigan, they moved to Tuscola to start over. Her first off-farm job was at the Tuscola Community Pool — popping popcorn at the concession stand.
The Weirs met through their 4-H youth worker in Douglas County. They attended the University of Illinois and moved to Raymond in 1998.
David also grew up on a farm.
He currently volunteers for the local fire department and ambulance service, and is a member of the Army Reserve.
His first job offer out of college was a production manager position with Weaver Popcorn in Indiana. He declined the offer.
“I didn’t really see a long-term future in the popcorn business,” he said.
And then came kettle corn.
Colleen’s first taste of kettle corn at an area festival revived her interest in the snack. The couple and some friends decided to produce and sell popcorn at fairs and events.
“That’s where I was really bitten by the bug,” she said. “We learned to do the kettle corn and caramel corn out of a kettle, the old-fashioned way, stirring by hand.”
David said they were all surprised by the demand, but with young kids, they didn’t have the time to commit to it.
Years later, they had the chance to buy a Chatham-based business that included some popcorn equipment along with a few wholesale accounts. Colleen changed recipes, improved the product line and debuted the Creekstone Kettle Works brand at the Illinois Products Expo in March of 2017.
Colleen views popcorn as a “blank canvas” with endless possibilities. She loves to cook and has created specialty flavors, such as frosted cinnamon bun, pumpkin spice, double chocolate salted caramel, and custom flavors designed for businesses such as Zillion’s Chili.
Nearly 100 flavors of popcorn can be made, but only about 24 are made on a regular basis. Top sellers include kettle corn, caramel corn, cheddar cheese and caramel cheddar mix.
Colleen pops all the popcorn in soybean oil, and uses pecans from Voss Farms in Carlisle in their caramel pecan and turtle flavors. She continues to look for local sourcing options for all ingredients.
The business employs about 16 part-time employees, including high school and college students. Their two teenage sons also help.
The popcorn is sold wholesale and for events, such as weddings and fundraisers. The front half of their business functions mainly as a warehouse. Customers have followed the amazing aromas into their business, looking to buy, so the couple set up a small area for retail sales.
“We have dreams of expansion that include making ours more of a retail destination, but we just aren't there yet,” she said.
Both thanked the community for its support, which they called humbling.
“What we thought would be a regular Monday through Friday job for her has turned into much more,” David said. “I'm very proud of her and what she's done. It's grown bigger and faster than we were even remotely expecting or prepared for.”