Sweet green chile, fruit flavors among favorites; Kool-Aid flavor didn’t work out
One night in 2013 Robert Mendez and his family searched for green chile popcorn but could not find it anywhere in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“We live in the state that has the best green chile . . . in the whole country and we don’t have a representative of green chile popcorn. So we went out and made one, ” Mendez said.
Mendez and his family used this craving and started The Cornivore Popcorn Company in 2013. Mendez and his wife Bernadette Mendez and daughter Jessica Brandenburg own the company together.
Before The Cornivore, Mendez said he started a real estate company in 2000, but selling halted due to the 2007 recession and housing bubble crash.
“In the middle of all that stuff I was trying to keep our business alive, my wife had a stroke, a massive stroke,” Mendez said. “And so that pretty much took the wind out of our sales in the real estate game.”
Despite these challenges, Mendez said having no steady income opened his eyes to different ways of making money.
“The Cornivore . . . is basically a concept, [an] idea that we developed around our kitchen table,” Mendez said. “We immediately saw an opportunity to create . . . income popping popcorn.”
Going beyond common flavors like salt, butter and caramel, Mendez and family explored different flavors such as churro, biscochito, and red chile limon. Soon thereafter Mendez let other people taste their popcorn.
“Everybody liked the flavor and before you know it people were giving us flavor ideas,” Mendez said. “And 35 flavors later, here we are.”
According to the website, The Cornivore’s flavors include cinnamon kettle crunch, green chile cheddar, banana, grape, blue raspberry, apple, orange, Mexican chocolate, and strawberry white drizzle. Mendez says he is concocting coconut cream pie kettle corn for his next creation.
Mendez says the company’s most popular flavor is the sweet green chile.
“People just go nuts over that,” Mendez said.
Not so fav flaves
Despite Mendez’s willingness to experiment with many different flavors, he says not all flavors worked out.
“One time we tried making Kool-Aid popcorn, it was a huge disaster,” Mendez said. “That was probably our biggest fail.”
Mendez says the Cornivore uses a custom-built machine for making their flavored popcorn.
“It’s a basic kettle corn style machine but what we did is built this mechanism on top to help us stir it or otherwise you have to work it with a stick,” Mendez said.
Finding a workspace
Mendez says he had trouble finding a work space for The Cornivore until he found a small closed restaurant in a parking lot owned by the La Cumbre Brewing Company.
“I really didn’t think it was going to come to be because I was so used to getting no after no . . . but he responded and said ‘yeah’,” Mendez said.
Despite the modest space, Mendez says clients prefer to do business at the shop.
“People insist on coming in all the time,” Mendez said. “It’s almost like they’re involved in the process when they come in to buy their popcorn.”
Mendez says local business incubators like FatPipe ABQ provided guidance and helped him start the Cornivore.
“We’ve been very active in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Albuquerque. We try to attend a lot of the events down there, entrepreneurial office hours,” Mendez said.
Mendez says using business incubators provides instant collaboration with other startups that specialize in other products and services.
“If you’re working on a project and you need programming help and there’s a programmer there, they’re willing to help you,” Mendez said. “And you can give your expertise to other people when they need you.”
Mendez says there are plenty of resources for startups developing in business incubators.
“Entrepreneurs can go in and . . . rent a spot in a co-working space where they can actually work with other people that are in different fields,” Mendez said. “Companies are being built within a co-working space and I recommend definitely getting involved with those because it’s really hard to . . . give an example of how much support is available until you get involved in these programs.”
In addition to working with FatPipe ABQ, Mendez is also a current UNM student. Mendez is majoring in business with a concentration in entrepreneurial studies.
“UNM is really tapped in,” Mendez said. “They got the Innovation Academy right now.”
Mendez says instructors like Stacy Sacco are a tremendous asset. Sacco teaches business classes at the UNM Anderson School of Management.
“He’s very connected and he’s extremely willing to help,” Mendez said. “As a UNM student you have the ability to get connected with Stacey Sacco and some of the programs . . . he’s supporting, that’s another great way to get involved.”
In addition to providing alternative popcorn flavors, Mendez says the Cornivore gives back to the community by providing jobs and fundraising opportunities.
“We believe in creating jobs for New Mexico and the idea of the Cornivore is to present New Mexican flavor but also give opportunities for New Mexicans to create . . . income . . . for themselves,” Mendez said. “We want to be able to offer our popcorn to people to fundraise for their organization, to raise money for themselves individually.”
Mendez says New Mexico “is a state where we need to build small companies from the ground up.”
The Cornivore provides potential income opportunities for members of the local community.
“In order to become economically sustainable we need to make it so that people have jobs, people have somewhere to go to work and they can support their families,” Mendez said. “We have the talent and . . . the ability to make amazing products in our communities and we can market those, make money and create sustainability.”
Mendez says The Cornivore uses a wholesale model as opposed to a standard retail model.
“We have a different concept on distribution,” Mendez said. “We’re not going to be right next to everybody in grocery stores.”
Mendez says the wholesale model allows for more flexibility when dealing with clients looking to sell their popcorn.
“Sometimes they need to make money today and that’s what we want to offer is an opportunity for people to go out and make money today using our product,” Mendez said.
Mendez said he has not ruled out the retail route.
“We definitely see retail in our near future,” Mendez said. “We’re probably going to have a store somewhere.”
Mendez says other future distribution models will include popcorn carts and a mobile popping station made from a bus.
“A cart is perfect for us because we can take our product out fresh directly to the consumer at events and street parades,” Mendez said.
Mendez says he would like to have more than one cart and place them in different parts of the city.
“What we can do is create relationships around town where we . . . have those carts in different places and then we can hire people in the community to help us run those carts,” Mendez said. “There’s enough money in there to make a good income.”
Follow Marino on Twitter.