Have a desire to get into the food business? Don’t have enough money to start a restaurant or buy a food truck? Want to help enrich people’s lives through healthy yet delicious snacks?
If so, starting a popcorn business might be for you. Globally, popcorn sales generate nearly $15 billion annually, with lots of room left for growth. Unlike almost any other food, popcorn is prevalent on every continent. It is inexpensive, stores well, and beloved by people of all ages.
Popcorn’s enduring appeal is due to its versatility. You may think of popcorn as belonging in a movie theater and covered in butter and salt, but it has become so much more than that. In India, they like anchovy garlic popcorn, while Nigerians favor fruit chutney popcorn.
With its naturally neutral taste, people from everywhere can combine popcorn with an infinite palette of flavors for a snack that instantly suits their cultural tastes. Innovators are figuring out new and different popcorn flavors seemingly every day.
But is popcorn an excellent business to start from your home?
Popcorn can be a great product both as a home-based or retail business. You can pursue this business full-time or as a side hustle. The ways you can get into popcorn are nearly as versatile as the snack itself.
Can You Make Good Money from a Popcorn Business?
That’s the real question, and I am happy to report the answer is yes, popcorn can be a very profitable business.
Here is a five-step process to help you figure out which popcorn business model is suitable for you and how much money you can make:
- What kind of popcorn business do you want to start?
- Where can you sell your popcorn?
- What are the costs of running a popcorn business?
- How much revenue can your popcorn business make?
- What will your popcorn business profit be?
Step 1: What Kind of Popcorn Business do You Want to Start?
You can start a popcorn business using equipment as simple as a stove-top popcorn popper or you can buy a popcorn cart to use at events like concerts and festivals. You can even buy a popcorn franchise from an existing well-known popcorn business.
Cottage Food Laws
The easiest, lowest cost way to get into the popcorn business is to make, package, and sell your popcorn from home.
In most states, popcorn falls under cottage food laws. Cottage food laws are a relatively recent innovation. Previously, the Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of food made in home kitchens.
With cottage food laws, non-hazardous foods like popcorn can be made and sold from home. Other foods covered under cottage food laws include some baked goods, jams, jellies, and other foods that are not time or temperature-sensitive.
You can check out this map to see the cottage food laws in your state.
To make popcorn from home, all you need is simple equipment. The simplest is a popcorn popper, such as this line from Whirley-Pop. On average, they cost around $35 but are limited in that you can pop around a gallon of popcorn at a time. They are sufficient to at least get you started.
To get any kind of significant home-based production going, however, you need a countertop popcorn machine. They vary in price from $90-$500, but Great Northern’s Antique Style Popcorn Popper at $240.00 is a great entry point. It can make up to three gallons of popcorn at a time.
Some people use dedicated machines like the A-1 Sweet Machine to make kettle corn. Stan-alone kettle corn makers can be great for use at festivals, but they can cost between $800-$3,000. You can also make kettle corn with a simple stove-top popper.
Whatever popper you use, you can make regular popcorn or popcorn with gourmet flavors like caramel since these flavors are added and stirred into the popcorn after it has been popped.
If you don’t want to make all your popcorn at home or with a countertop popper, you can also invest in a popcorn cart. This is a medium-level investment in the field of popcorn production. Popcorn carts are mobile. They are perfect if you want to take your popcorn business on the road to a farmer’s market or another venue.
Many entry-level popcorn carts, like this one, cost around $40. Popcorn carts are great for in-person retail opportunities because they combine the functionality of a countertop popper with the look of a mobile food enterprise.
Popcorn Store Franchise
The third way to get into the popcorn business is to start a retail store or franchise. Of the three options, this requires the highest initial investment in startup costs but can be very profitable. And owning a popcorn franchise might not be as expensive as you think.
Doc Popcorn is one of the fastest-growing food franchises out there, and you can get started with them for an investment as low as $39,000. However, there are other rules to qualify to be a Doc Popcorn franchisee, such as you must have at least $80,000 in liquid capital and a total net worth of at least $250,000.
Owning a franchise can be a good option if you have the money. You will benefit from the franchise’s products, equipment, and branding menu. This turnkey business can become profitable quickly, sometimes as early as the first year.
Step 2: Where Can You Sell Your Popcorn?
Almost everyone likes at least one flavor of popcorn, and there are multiple ways you can get into the business, from a simple stove-top popper to buying a retail franchise, but where can you sell your popcorn?
Traditional Popcorn Sales Locations
Here are some places you can sell traditional butter-and-salt popcorn or even kettle corn:
- Sports events
- Church sales
- On the street
- School carnivals
- College campuses
- Business parks
Look for places that don’t already have a popcorn sales concession. Children’s sporting events are usually all-day weekend affairs, where game after game is played at the same park or other sports locale. Since these events are often not well-covered by traditional concessions, many people must bring their own snacks.
You could make an excellent profit by selling popcorn for $1.50 per bag. This would be a perfect venue where you could make popcorn at home and bring it pre-bagged. You can set up a simple foldable table to sell your popcorn or walk around and hawk it to the parents in the stands.
You could make $200 in revenue or more for a Saturday afternoon of work following this model. Not bad for a side hustle at all.
Gourmet Popcorn Sales Locations
Popcorn with butter and salt perfectly complements activities where people need a quick snack or are watching something, but what about gourmet flavors?
Caramel, chocolate, and even jalapeno are among the most popular popcorn flavors out there. Gourmet popcorn is more expensive to make because of the added ingredients, so you will want to charge a bit more for it too.
While regular popcorn is great for children’s soccer games, these same parents might not want to pay the higher price for tasty gourmet popcorn. So, you need to find venues with an audience of people looking for a premium popcorn experience.
Here are some ideas of where you could sell your gourmet popcorn:
- Farmer’s markets
- Downtown areas
- Local shops
- Tourist areas
You can also sell your gourmet popcorn at online marketplaces like Shopify. Shopify will enable you to set up your own online popcorn store and includes digital marketing and other tools with the subscription. You can start a basic popcorn storefront on Shopify for $29 per month.
Step 3: What Are the Costs of Running a Popcorn Business?
Popcorn is a business with a high-profit margin. After buying the initial equipment for a home-based popcorn business, most of your expenses will be ingredients and other product-related costs.
Wholesale popcorn kernels will run you about $.50-$2.00 per pound, depending on the type of popcorn and how much you buy. One pound of popcorn kernels will yield about 16 one-ounce servings of cooked popcorn (about 1.5 cups).
Crunching these numbers and accounting for waste, your cost of sales for popcorn kernels will be about $.06 per serving.
Many people claim that coconut oil is the best oil for popcorn. Due to its high smoke point of around 450 degrees Fahrenheit, it is the perfect oil for high heat cooking like popcorn.
Buying in bulk, coconut oil will cost you about $2-$3 per pound. Figure each pound could cook around ten pounds of popcorn. That works out to approximately $.01 per serving.
To start a basic popcorn business, other items you will need are salt, butter, bags, and napkins. Individually, these costs are negligible, but all together, they add up to around $.10 per a1.5 cups serving of popcorn.
Total Cost of Sales Per Unit
For a basic salt-and-butter popcorn serving, your total costs of sales will be $.06+$.01+$.10= $.17. Assuming you sold each bag of popcorn for about $1.50, your profit margin would be roughly 80%, including the cost of product waste from unsold popcorn.
It’s important to remember that concession popcorn is a perishable item, so whatever you don’t sell at that sporting event will be wasted. While you can feed the leftovers to the birds, the unused popcorn will also eat into your profits.
Licensing and Insurance
Being protected under cottage food laws means you can sell popcorn as a home-based business, but it does not mean that you are exempt from other business requirements.
Most municipalities will require you to get a business license, even when starting a homemade business. While some online marketplaces like Shopify may not require you to have a business license, you will still likely need one to not run afoul of local laws. Annual business licenses range from $15 to $450.
Liability insurance protects your business against lawsuits and other legal penalties. Even as a small business owner, you should check into the cost of getting insurance, which can be as low as around $20 per month.
Step 4: How Much Revenue Can Your Popcorn Business Make?
While you probably won’t make $8.5 million in revenue like Timothy Heitmann managed to do with his startup, you can still earn great money selling popcorn.
Concession-Selling at Sporting Events
Selling popcorn in the street or at sports events, the revenue you get will depend on your hustle. With about 21.47 million kids playing at least one sport annually, you can make good revenue if you focus on selling at sports events and even practices where there are no other popcorn vendors.
Assuming you could sell 30 bags of popcorn that cost $1.50 each, you can make $45 in revenue at one hour-and-a-half game. Hit three or four of these in a weekend or summer afternoon, and your revenue could be around $200 for six hours of work.
Booth-Selling at Festivals and Farmers Markets
Of course, you can also set up walk-up booths at farmer’s markets and festivals. You are likely selling more expensive gourmet popcorn at these types of events. For example, assume you make $3 per 1.5 cup bag of popcorn. Even if your farmer’s market or festival has only average attendance, you should be able to clear about 100 units sold per day or about $300 in daily revenue.
Step 5: What Will Your Popcorn Business Profits Be?
For the following calculations, we will assume the profit margin we calculated earlier, 80%, for both traditional popcorn flavored only with salt and butter and gourmet popcorn flavored with more elaborate toppings.
Your actual cost of sales would change according to your inputs and waste, but shooting for a margin of 80% works well for this type of home business, and average popcorn pricing models support it.
Profits from Traditional Popcorn
To sell traditional popcorn, assume you purchase a countertop popcorn popper like the Great Northern Antique Popper for $240. This will allow you to make good popcorn at home, and in some circumstances, you can even set it up at a booth during an event.
Assume your liability coverage is also $240 annually (12 months at $20) and your business/vendor licensing costs $200. This gives a total first year’s costs of $680, not including ingredients.
Finally, assuming you can make $1,000 in weekly sales (five days a week at $200) at a profit margin of 80%, your first-year profits could be $52,000 x 80% – $680 = $41,600 for the first year.
Profits from Gourmet Popcorn
Assuming you can make an average daily revenue of $300 from booth and online sales, your weekly profits working five days would be $1,500.
With these assumptions, for the first year, your profits would be 52 x $1,500 x .80% – $680 = $61,720.
1. Is popcorn really a healthy snack?
Compared to most commercial snacks that come in a bag, absolutely! Popcorn is considered a whole grain and averages only 55 calories per cup. But, of course, this doesn’t account for added ingredients like butter and salt.
2. Are there different types of popcorn kernels?
Mushroom and snowflake are the two types of popcorn kernels. Snowflake is the perfect type to use for traditional concession-style popcorn because it is fluffier. On the other hand, Mushroom popcorn is better for gourmet popcorn because it holds caramel and other candy coatings better.