A father’s foresight. A mother’s business acumen. And a daughter’s resolute commitment to the family business. All three elements have helped build Waukegan, Ill.-based Cornfields Inc. into one of the fastest growing, private-label healthy snack manufacturers in the United States. Moreover, that growth has provided a springboard for the company to venture into retail with its own brands, such as G.H. Cretors and Hi I’m Skinny.
Founded by G.H. (George Henry but known as Henry) Cretors in 1991, one of the great-grandsons of Charles Cretors — the inventor of the steam-powered popping machine and the man who’s credited with founding the concessions industry — Cornfields was one of the first companies to receive organic certification shortly after the FDA finalized regulations and protocols in 2002.
“He really was ahead of his time, way ahead of his time,” say Claire Cretors, Henry’s daughter and president of Cornfields. “He was passionate about products, about creating better-for-you, organic snacks.”
Henry also had a penchant for acquiring processing equipment, a trait no doubt passed on by his great-grandfather. “He loved equipment,” adds Claire. That trait prompted him to seek out not only industrial popcorn processing equipment from family-run C. Cretors and Co., but also extruders and enrobing lines whenever they became available.
“He really set us up to be in a great position,” Claire adds. Unfortunately, as the 35-year-old executive relates, her father didn’t get to see the results of his foresight, having passed away at 61 in 2004. Prior to his death, Claire’s mother, Phyllis had come out of retirement to help with the business during her husband’s illness.
Fortunately, Phyllis was no stranger to operating snack companies; she had founded the Popcorn Factory in the 1970s, eventually selling the business in the early 1990s. Nonetheless, Phyllis recognized that growing Cornfields beyond its then small-business parameters required an energetic and full-time commitment.
After experimenting with hiring a president for the company, a move that just didn’t work out well for the entrepreneurial operation, Phyllis was pleasantly surprised to hear that her daughter was interested in joining the company.
“I was pleased that she wanted to go on this journey with me,” she says. “At the same time, I wanted to be sure about working together. A mother-daughter relationship is more important than any business relationship.”
As it turned out, Phyllis had no need to worry. Claire, who had been working for a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., took to entrepreneurship like, well, popcorn does to butter.
“We had about 15 employees at the time,” Claire says. “I was a finance major, so one of my first tasks involved looking into costing. I got involved in product development, learned about production and how each piece of equipment worked, dabbled in sales, and simply learned all aspects of the business.”
The learning curve, which officially began in 2005, didn’t take long to produce results. Within three to four years, the company was beginning to gain traction.
“I was fortunate to be working with incredibly dedicated people,” Claire says. “We were able to land some large private-label accounts, which helped drive our top line. And then we also made some good decisions regarding equipment acquisitions and customers.”
Ironically, one of those good decisions was a very personal one; she met Jean Baptiste Weiler at a Natural Products Expo West show in 2009 and eventually married him. Weiler worked for another food company at the time, but was persuaded to join Cornfields as head of sales.
For Weiler, it wasn’t that difficult of a decision. As he points out, the company already had “all the production capabilities; everything had been figured out. They already were organic certified and offered multiple capabilities. It was just a matter of getting in front of the customers and telling our story.”
And that’s just about when the popcorn category began to take off. Here again, timing plays a role. As it so happens, work had begun on developing a branded product for the company. Up until this point, Cornfields strictly produced items for private-label customers and/or co-manufactured for other branded companies.
Obviously, as a major supplier of bagged popcorn, it made sense to stay close to one of Cornfields’ key competencies.
“We really didn’t know what we were doing with regards to launching a brand,” Claire says. “We’re not brand people, not marketers, but the story is so great, all this history beginning with my great-great-grandfather.”
Thus, G.H. Cretors’ Chicago Mix was launched. And what is a Chicago Mix? It’s a blend of cheese corn and buttery caramel corn. (Editor’s Note: The term Chicago Mix was trademarked by St. Paul, Minn.-based Candyland in 1992; its use by other companies is being contested by Candyland).
Claire admits the product was slow to catch on in retail. Convinced that they were still on the right track, the Cornfields team decided to change the packaging almost four years ago. It also reformulated the product.
“We had been using a cheese that had onion and garlic flavors, aiming for a sophisticated foodie flavor,” she says. “We decided to make the product more real, more old-fashioned. To do so, we decided to use just pure cheddar cheese.”
In addition, the company changed out corn syrup for brown rice syrup — Claire says the brown rice syrup provides a different sweetness, one that doesn’t deliver an immediate sugar rush. Also, as she points out, many consumers perceive brown rice syrup as a healthier alternative to corn syrup.
Slowly but steadily the changes spurred a surge in sales. Quickly, the company expanded the varieties. Currently, in addition to Chicago Mix, the popcorn line includes Just the Caramel Corn, Just the Cheese Corn, Organic Simply Salted and Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
“We had a great club following, which helped catapult our exposure,” she says.
As Weiler says, once consumers try the product, they’re ready to come back for more.
The statistics certainly back that up. Sales in 2012 rose 60 percent, followed by another 35 percent jump in 2013. Currently distribution is at 20 percent ACV. The goal for 2015 is to reach 55 percent ACV, as the company moves forward with placements in Target, Kroger and Shop-rite stores this year.
The company’s G.H. Cretors popcorn brand ranks third in the Midwest and fifth nationally, Claire and Weiler point out.
The ongoing success of the G.H. Cretors brand — popcorn remains a hot category — prompted Claire and her group to launch a new line of healthy snacks, this one based on healthy grains. Originally rolled out in 2012, Hi I’m Skinny debuted with four flavors of multigrain-based sticks.
As with G.H. Cretors, the rollout wasn’t an immediate success. Nonetheless, as with G.H. Cretors, a reformulation coupled with new packaging, has sparked a re-launch, one that Claire believes will perform as well as the G.H. Cretors re-launch did.
“Our new line includes two quinoa sticks, a more authentic sweet potato and our original veggie tortilla.
“We’re seeing growth in the healthy snacking chips and sticks category,” she says. “And there’s a real trend in products featuring ancient grains.”
Amazingly, Claire says she personally dislikes quinoa.
“It’s actually quite bitter all on its own,” she points out. “It was a challenge, since we wanted it to be the prominent carrier, but not to be offensive. Nonetheless, it had to be nutritionally valuable.”
Perhaps even more importantly, it had to taste good — to Claire. “Even my kids like it,” she adds.
What’s on the way? Kale, of course, which Claire doesn’t care for either. Count on the final product being just as tasty as the quinoa sticks, she adds.
Not surprisingly, the venture into branded products, which currently only accounts for 10 percent of Cornfields’ revenues, actually helps build the company’s private-label and co-packing business.
“We can see what works, what doesn’t work,” she explains. “It directs us to the white space that’s available. This way we can share our innovation with our private-label and co-packing customers.”
This proves particularly helpful in an increasingly competitive private-label arena.
“There are plenty of players and customers that want unique and different things,” she says. “We’re a company that embraces innovation. As a result, we’re always trying to be more creative, more cost effective. And as we grow, we have an advantage in purchasing power.”
And, as Weiler asserts, “We’re poised to capture the gluten-free, vegan, organic-certified and GMO-free snacks segment.”
One of the reasons that Cornfields is so well-positioned stems from its manufacturing capabilities, which Claire earlier attributed to her father’s foresight. When the company moved to its current location in 2004, she didn’t think the company would ever fill up the 100,000-sq.-ft. space. Two expansions and an additional 120,000 sq. ft. later, the company now occupies all 220,000 sq. ft. of what once was a partitioned building.
Production takes up about one-third of the space. There are seven main production areas: two caramel kitchens, an extruding room, a frying area, wet and air popping production lines and chocolate enrobing. The two caramel kitchens feature 50 Savage kettles in total, with 12 people per shift manning each kitchen.
The company typically runs two production shifts and one sanitation shift 24/6, with two weeks of most months running 24/7. The facility is BRC, organic, non-GMO and kosher certified. Online testing of all products is conducted by quality assurance technicians and supervisors.
Given the company’s spectacular growth during the past years, meeting demand — as one can imagine — has proven to be a delightful but challenging proposition.
“It’s all about maximizing our space, “ says Jim Toby, v.p. of operations. Given that growth in 2014 topped 30 percent and projections for 2015 call for an even greater increase, the company is looking at the size of the facility and its adjoining parking lot to accommodate volume and product demand.
But growth doesn’t just simply entail making room for equipment, even though Cornfields looks to add a new production line this year. It’s about adding staff “everywhere,” says Claire. The company just recently expanded its sales team, adding a national sales manager and four regional sales managers.
“I don’t believe anything could have prepared me for the growth we’ve had,” she says. “It certainly was a welcome surprise.” Moreover, Claire believes the company has only “scratched the surface. Consumers are looking for better-for-you snacks; looking for better ingredients, better taste, better calorie counts.
“We also see opportunities in seasonal items, such as those we offered this past year, such as caramel apple flavored popcorn, Greek yogurt drizzle on caramel corn, nut crunches featuring cashews and almonds and chocolate SKUs, featuring items enrobed in real chocolate,” she adds.
As for growing pains, Claire knows she can turn to her mother for advice. Besides, as Phyllis says, she’s “done it before. The most important aspect of growth is finding good people to join the team. We have a good handle on manufacturing. Our time will be spent on managing a growing company.”
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any mistakes made in the process.
“I like to see mistakes; as long as one learns from them,” Phyllis says.
Mark the Cornfields group as really fast learners.
At-a-Glance: Cornfields Inc.
Products:Popcorn, caramel corn, baked or fried extruded snacks, enrobed products (bars, caramel corn and peppermint patties), panned products.
Plant:220,000 sq. ft.
Brands:G.H. Cretors; Hi I’m Skinny
Management:Phyllis Cretors, ceo; Claire Cretors, president; J.B. Weiler, executive v.p. – sales; Jim Toby, v.p. – operations; Jeff McMahon, v.p. – finance.