American Pop Corn Company History

P.O. Box 178
Sioux City, Iowa 51102

Telephone: (712) 239-1232
Fax: (712) 239-1268

Private Company
Incorporated: 1926
Employees: 185
NAIC: 311999 All Other Miscellaneous Food Manufacturers

Company Perspectives:

JOLLY TIME continues to be a leader in the snack industry.

Key Dates:

American Pop Corn Company sells more than 75,000 pounds of white pop corn its first season in business.
Company introduces revolutionary packaging of popcorn in airtight cans; incorporates the following year.
Radio show is launched to promote Jolly Time popcorn nationwide.
New Jolly Time logo is launched with signature banner and new lettering.
Sales double in two years as company sells 500,000 cases of popcorn in ten-ounce cans.
Jolly Time Pop Corn appears on the popular game show Let's Make a Deal.
Jolly Time logo is updated with a sleek style.
Jolly Time Microwave Pop Corn is introduced.
Blast O Butter becomes the company's most popular flavor.
KettleMania Outrageously Fun Kettle Corn is introduced.
American Pop Corn produces its billionth bag of microwave popcorn.

Company History:

American Pop Corn Company is the oldest processor of popcorn in the United States, as well as one of the largest. The company's products are sold to consumers under the Jolly Time brand. White and yellow popcorn are available dry or packaged for cooking in a microwave oven. Microwave flavors include butter, light, and fat-free varieties, as well as cheddar cheese and sweetened kettle corn. The company offers a premium popcorn under the brand American's Best, available dry in plastic jars. Vendors can purchase bulk quantities of Little Wonder white popcorn and Gold Mine yellow popcorn.

American Pop Corn purchases popcorn from 130 farmers who tend more than 20,000 acres in Iowa and Nebraska. Processing involves slow-drying popcorn on-the-cob to obtain a balance of moisture and dryness for a high volume of fluff. The company's facilities are located in Sioux City, Leeds, and Schaller, Iowa.

Beginnings in 1914

American Pop Corn Company founder Cloid H. Smith spent his childhood in the center of the country, Sac County, Iowa, where climate conditions for growing pop corn are ideal. Smith enjoyed popped "pop corn" frequently as a child, before "popcorn" became a regular part of American life. Enterprising as a young man, Smith opened a drugstore in Odebolt, Iowa, at the age of 20. In 1899 he founded Odebolt Telephone Company, the first local exchange. When that company merged with other telephone exchanges, forming New State Telephone Company, Smith became general manager and moved to Sioux City with his family in 1905. Smith stayed with the company after Bell Telephone Company acquired New State in 1912. With the funds he received from the sale of New State stock C.H. bought farmland north of Odebolt.

Smith stumbled into the popcorn business after the farmer working his land sold the corn for a price Smith considered too low. When Smith discussed the matter with the buyer, the buyer challenged him to start his own business. Smith entered the popcorn trade in 1914 with the idea of packaging a high-quality product that would be easy for grocers to sell and ready for customers to cook. At this time popcorn was sold on the cob in bulk. The bulk bags took space in the stores and were inconvenient for grocers who had to weigh the orders. Customers had to shuck and wash the corn themselves. Also, quality popcorn had not been developed yet, and people accepted that many kernels would not pop.

American Pop Corn was the first company to process and sell popcorn. Smith picked the corn in Odebolt and took it home where he and his son, Howard, shucked corn from the cob, then washed and packaged the kernels. The company sold popcorn in bulk to vendors in 100-pound and 150-pound burlap sacks and in one-pound cardboard cartons to grocers. The Jolly Time name "just happened to pop up." On consumer packaging the name "Jolly Time" was printed in bright green above a picture of three children sitting on the floor, toys strewn around them, eating popcorn from a large bowl. Its first season in business, from April to November 1914, American Pop Corn sold more than 75,000 pounds of popcorn.

Smith's boyhood experience with pop corn influenced the development of the company. Smith knew that freshly harvested corn did not pop as readily as corn dried on the cob for several months. After some experimentation with natural air-drying, Smith and Howard designed a storage crib that would provide the proper level of ventilation. In the fall of 1914 American Pop Corn completed construction of a storage crib in Leeds, Iowa, with the capacity to hold 500,000 pounds of corn. As the family basement and backyard shed no longer provided enough space to handle operations, the following year American Pop Corn built a shelling and washing facility adjacent to the storage crib.

As American Pop Corn's rapid success required more involvement, Smith resigned from Bell Telephone in 1915. After Howard graduated from high school in 1916, he joined the company on a full-time basis as well. American Pop Corn began to establish relationships with brokers who sold Jolly Time Pop Corn to grocers and Smith hired Stanley Thatcher in 1920 to cultivate relationships with vendors who sold popcorn at carnivals and circuses, at busy intersections of larger towns and cities, and near movie theaters. American Pop Corn simplified business for vendors by offering all of the supplies needed: corn oil, salt, and cartons and glassine bags for serving hot, freshly popped popcorn. Thatcher maintained contact through personal letters and the Jolly Time Booster, published from 1924 to 1941, which provided information about the company and stories about successful vendors.

Marketing Programs Furthering Growth During 1920s and 1930s

A problem developed in the retail trade as popcorn continued to dry while sitting on grocery store shelves, becoming too dry to pop to its full volume. In 1920 the company experimented with packaging popcorn in glass jars, but it proved to be costly, especially due to breakage. An engineer at American Can Company in Chicago designed an airtight metal can to meet American Pop Corn's needs. Not only was the can a revolutionary way to package popcorn, it was a precursor to the beer can. American Pop Corn introduced Jolly Time in a red, white, and blue can in 1925, which carried the message, "It's guaranteed to pop!" The company hired Jim Coates to promote the product to brokers and the company's first national advertising campaign coincided with the new packaging. American Pop Corn advertised in Good Housekeeping magazine and received the magazine's Seal of Approval for quality.

Advertisements in national magazines and major newspapers promoted the appeal of popcorn to people of all ages. In 1929 Jolly Time appeared in many popular magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post, Holland's Magazine, Liberty, and the Farmer's Wife. Advertising in 162 metropolitan newspapers in every state and in Canada, American Pop Corn reached nearly nine million readers. Full-page advertisements in Progressive Grocer exemplified the success of grocers who offered Jolly Time popcorn. In 1929 the company sold more than ten million pounds of popcorn.

American Pop Corn launched a weekly radio show in 1930, hosted by General Jolly Time and his Pop Corn Colonels. The orchestra played popular music and took requests from listeners across the country. The show's theme song, "A Bowl of Pop Corn, a Radio, and You," was a popular hit. A trade advertisement listed 30 cities where the radio show played, along with broadcast stations and times. The promotion stated "Push Jolly Time--For the Largest Profits and Quickest Turnover."

During the 1930s popcorn grew in popularity because it was an inexpensive snack during economically difficult times, at the movies and at home. A ten-ounce can of Jolly Time cost ten cents, and popcorn could be enjoyed at home while listening to the radio. To promote popcorn as a snack, American Pop Corn offered an electric popcorn popper and a can of Jolly Time pop corn for one dollar, shipped anywhere in the country. Thousands of customers responded.

The Smith family encountered its own difficulties in 1931 when the storage crib in Sioux City burned to the ground. The entire stock of corn was destroyed. Construction of a new facility, completed a year later, accommodated the company's patented "Volumized" process for slow-drying.

Post-World War II Era: Marketing to the Consumer

During the late 1930s American Pop Corn began marketing a variety of popcorn brands, including Thunderbolt, Magic-Pop, and Giant Yellow South American Popcorn, designed for different markets, usually at lower prices. The minor brands sold well but not remarkably, so Howard decided to simplify the company's brand marketing to emphasize the Jolly Time brand. The idea proved to be appropriate to a new era that emerged for the company after C.H. Smith died in 1939, when Howard became president of American Pop Corn Company, and after World War II, when a new consumer era developed.

During the early stages of the company's history, American Pop Corn focused most of its marketing efforts toward bulk buyers, the vendors and grocers. After World War II the company marketed directly to consumers on a national basis. Howard maintained the Little Wonder and Gold Mine brands for vendors and positioned Jolly Time for consumers. He hired renowned package designer Jim Nash to give Jolly Time a new look; Nash designed Jolly Time's signature banner. Fresh advertising copy by Bob Savage complemented the new style.

The popularity of movies and the advent of television played a vital role in the company's growth, for both bulk and consumer brands. However, consumer packages showed the most dramatic growth. In 1939 the company sold 75,000 cases of ten-ounce cans of popcorn. By 1947 sales increased to 250,000, then doubled to 500,000 cases in 1949.

New competition slowed sales during the early 1950s as new national brands emerged to take advantage of a growing market. The company hired different advertising agencies to maintain a fresh approach to promotion. Celebrity endorsements from Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson added excitement to magazine advertising. Advertisements appeared in more than 20 national magazines, such as Ladies' Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens, and Sunset, as well as in more than 800 newspapers weekly. For 26 weeks during the fall and winter of 1956-57 the company advertised on Arthur Godfrey's national radio show. Godfrey himself endorsed Jolly Time Pop Corn as "the world's best." In 1958 the company offered a hand-carved Black Forest Clock for $1.50 plus a lid or label from a package of Jolly Time popcorn. The ornate wood clocks were shipped directly from Germany.

New technology provided American Pop Corn with new packaging options during the 1950s. With some reluctance Howard Smith began to offer Jolly Time Pop Corn in transparent plastic bags. His concern for the quality of the corn--that a torn bag would lead to corn too dry to pop properly--was outweighed by consumer preference for plastic bags. In 1957 the company began to sell popcorn in a polyethylene bag that provided moisture-proof containment and durability to minimize tears. The introduction of a new fiber can in 1958 provided a convenient method of dry storage as a string easily opened the resealable lid. Consumers liked the container, so the company introduced an Economy Size 20-ounce can in 1959.

A third generation took the lead at American Pop Corn Company after Howard died in 1966. His sons, Chesley and Wrede Smith, applied successful methods they learned since working at the company, beginning in the 1940s. Their programs for continued growth and development involved hybrid research, new products, and new marketing and public relations programs.

Marketing and public relations emphasized brand recognition on a national level, particularly on television. In 1968 the company began to promote the Jolly Time brand through popular game shows. Monty Hall offered Jolly Time popcorn on Let's Make a Deal, displaying an eight-foot replica of a can of Jolly Time Pop Corn. Over the next decade Jolly Time appeared frequently on more than a dozen game shows.

To support its national advertising effort American Pop Corn sought to cultivate stronger relationships with its brokers. The company hired Shelby Johnstone as a full-time national sales representative in 1971 and began to publish Jolly Time News to provide brokers with information about new programs and new products. In 1972 Johnstone launched an annual display contest, to encourage grocers to attract attention to Jolly Time products. Designating October as Pop Corn Month, American Pop Corn offered prizes to grocers and brokers for the best display. Grocers responded with spectacular results, using hundreds of cases of Jolly Time products and increasing sales substantially.

Wrede and Chesley Smith decided to modernize the look of Jolly Time packaging. In 1973 Jolly Time donned a new label, featuring a streamlined version of the banner and sleek lettering for the name. Newspaper advertising featured a new character, Mr. Jolly, who wore a can of Jolly Time Pop Corn as a top hat. To attract attention in small advertisements Mr. Jolly was shown in lively situations, such as holding a sign that said, "Fun," and as a jack-in-the-box.

American Pop Corn introduced several new products in the early 1970s. The company began testing Jolly Time Pop Corn in Oil in certain markets in 1964 and introduced the product nationwide in 1972. Jolly Time Instant Buttery Seasoning, launched in 1974, provided an easy way to add butter and salt to popcorn, as well as meats and vegetables. Jolly Time Popping Oil was introduced in 1975.

Public relations involved providing articles about popcorn to food editors at newspapers and magazines. In 1973 American Pop Corn hired a home economist, Christine Pines, to write stories and present them for publication. The company expanded the program two years later to include recipes, photographs, and news; distribution included radio and television stations in large and small cities nationwide. In 1977 Patricia Fox Sheinwold wrote and published Jolly Time Party Book: Games, Puzzles, Recipes, and Creative Party Ideas for All Occasions.

Microwave Ovens, Health Concerns Directing Development: 1980s-90s

New appliances and new health guidelines provided a boost to all popcorn producers during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The hot air popper increased interest in popcorn as a healthy, fat-free snack and nutritionists acknowledged popcorn as a good source of fiber. In 1980 Weight Watchers gave popcorn a "legal" status for members of its weight management program. Between 1981 and 1986 the sales nearly doubled industrywide. More than half of all popcorn was eaten at home as network and cable television stations began to show feature films and as video cassette recorders (VCRs) became widely available for viewing movies at home.

Together with home videos, the widespread use of microwave ovens had an immense impact on increasing consumption of popcorn. American Pop Corn responded with the introduction of Jolly Time Microwave Pop Corn in 1984. By 1988 the boom in sales of microwave popcorn required construction of another production facility. Microwave packaging was instrumental in the company's introduction of popcorn to international markets as well, and the company began to export popcorn to Europe.

American Pop Corn sought to improve its product in all areas of consumer interest. In 1987 the company's hybrid research program, initiated in 1976, resulted in a premium popcorn product, American's Best yellow pop corn, which provided superior popping qualities in volume and popcorn size, as well as a sweet taste. As good health continued to be of concern, in late 1989 American Pop Corn reduced the fat-to-calorie ratio of its microwave popcorn to 42 percent, then introduced two light versions, Natural Butter Flavor Light Microwave Pop Corn and Natural Flavor Light Microwave Pop Corn made with 50 percent less fat, as well as less sodium and fewer calories.

The company continued to apply proven marketing techniques. Jolly Time appeared on popular game shows, such as Wheel of Fortune, The Price Is Right, and Jeopardy, and Paul Harvey and Dick Clark endorsed Jolly Time on their popular radio programs. An innovation in newspaper advertising involved free-standing inserts, packages of product coupons inserted into Sunday newspapers nationwide. American Pop Corn issued more than 200 million coupons annually, seeking to retain loyal customers and attract new ones. National magazine advertising involved newer publications, such as Family Circle, People, Seventeen, and the Disney Channel Magazine.

In a 1994 promotional campaign, American Pop Corn gave away a free package of Jolly Time microwave popcorn with titles from the Walt Disney Studio Film Collection. The promotion included a rebate program that paid three dollars to buyers who returned four proof-of-purchase UPCs with cash register receipts from Jolly Time Products.

1997: Putting Fun into Marketing

In 1997 American Pop Corn launched a new packaging and marketing concept to emphasize fun, especially family fun. The change occurred in conjunction with the introduction of Jolly Time Blast O Butter Ultimate Movie Theater Butter Microwave Popcorn, packaged in a bright red box with pictures of big popcorn puffs. The marketing involved new cartoon characters, the Funn family, featured in television advertising and on the company's web site. In a promotion of popcorn as fun, the company began to sell kits for making popcorn balls, providing molds for shaping popcorn into balls with a sugar syrup coating.

In November 2000 American Pop Corn launched a unique promotional program, the Search for America's Most Fun Family. The grand prize was an adventure vacation to Maui, Hawaii, including air transportation, accommodations, adventure activities, and $1,000 spending money. To enter families provided pictures and a 100-word essay on why their family was the nation's "most fun" family. After examining over 1,000 entries, in June 2001 American Pop Corn chose the Kostrubanic family of Erie, Pennsylvania. Their entry emphasized that money was not necessary to have fun and included original drawings and a mystery story, "A Case of Who & Where Is America's Most Fun Family."

American Pop Corn's celebration of family fun accompanied the Smith family's own commemorative moment. In late 2001 Wrede Smith retired, with C.H. Smith's great-grandsons heading the company. Wrede's son Garry became president and Carlton, son of Chesley, who died in 1978, became chairman. Only 3 percent of family owned-businesses have passed from the third to the fourth generation. At the time of Wrede's retirement members of the fifth generation remained undecided about managing the family business.

Microwave products introduced in 2002 and 2003 continued American Pop Corn's fun marketing theme with fun flavors and fun product names. These included KettleMania Outrageously Fun Kettle Corn, in a light coating of sugar and salt; Big Cheez Ultimate Cheddar Cheese; Butter Licious; and Healthy Pop Kettle Corn 94% Fat Free. In June 2003 American Pop Corn commemorated the one-billionth bag of microwave popcorn to come off the assembly line.

Principal Competitors: ConAgra Foods, Inc.; General Mills, Inc.

Further Reading:

  • American Pop Corn Company: An American Tradition Since 1914, Sioux City, Ia.: American Pop Corn Company, 1994.
  • "An American Pop Corn Co. Timeline," Associated Press State & Local Wire, July 2003.
  • Doherty, Katherine, "Jolly Time Extends Its Popcorn Line," U.S. Distribution Journal, March 15, 1990, p. 44.
  • "Double Play," Grocery Marketing, October 1995, p. 36.
  • "Eighty Nine Years--One Billion Bags; Smith Family Innovation Readies Jolly time for Next Billion," PR Newswire, June 27, 2003.
  • Farley, Mary Ann, "Disney's Studio Film Set Sports On-Pack Popcorn," Video Business, April 1, 1994, p. 42.
  • "For a Jolly Good Time," Food Processing, May 2002, p. 20.
  • "Guests Will Gobble Bird Dressed with Pop Corn," PR Newswire, November 14, 1994.
  • "Jolly Time on Mission to Find America's Most Fun Family," PR Newswire, November 1, 2000.
  • "Jolly Time Pop Corn Introduces America's Most Fun Family," Pr Newswire, June 21, 2001.
  • Lorentzen, Amy, "Jolly Time Makers Aim Toward Bigger Sales," Associated Press State & Local Wire, July 2003.
  • Sheinwold, Patricia Fox, Jolly Time Party Book: Games, Puzzles, Recipes, and Creative Party Ideas for All Occasions, Cambridge, Mass.: Dorison House Publishers, 1977.
  • Smith, Andrew F., Popped Culture: A Social History of Popcorn in America, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press, 2001.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.59. St. James Press, 2004.