Tucked away in the basement of their new Overland Park gourmet popcorn and ice cream shop, Justin and Melody Woo are already tasting the bold flavors of resiliency — and success — amid an ongoing pandemic that has ravaged small businesses.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat it; it’s been rough,” said Melody, reflecting on the tumultuous time since the couple’s November 2019 purchase of Popculture’s original location in Parkville. “It takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to stick with it and power through.”
With only four months of experience running the business under their aprons before COVID-19 hit, a background in food service and troubleshooting helped prepare them to adapt to challenges, said Justin — a professional chef in Kansas City for about 20 years.
“Honestly to our advantage, we really didn’t know what we were doing when we bought a popcorn shop,” he said. “Because of that, we just say ‘yes’ to anything that comes our way and figure it out.”
Click here to check out Popculture’s online shop.
The Woos quickly expanded Popculture from its Parkville location to Overland Park, signing a lease at the end of February — just weeks before COVID-19 prompted Stay At Home orders and a dramatic shift in operations.
“We weren’t going to put anyone at risk trying to open a store,” Justin said, noting the Overland Park shop’s grand opening was pushed from an initial date in May to Aug. 12.
Popping the business’s focus from in-person retail to social media-backed online efforts — and including free shipping on orders more than $25 — allowed the company to survive during less-than-ideal circumstances, said Melody, who manages Popculture’s Facebook and Instagram.
“We’re also blessed to have a great customer base in Parkville and now Overland Park,” Justin added. “They want us to be here, and we want to be a part of the community … It was also nice that a lot of people were binge-watching every streaming service they had, and we have a product that pairs well and can be delivered to your door!”
Click here to check out Popculture’s Instagram full of sweet treats.
No egos in the workplace
For the Woos, the guest experience pops first — and in tandem with their employees.
“My staff’s input on how this thing runs is extremely vital to me,” Justin said. “If they feel invested — like they are an important part of Popculture — then they will take care of our customers. For me to supply a great service, the best thing to do is take care of my staff.”
For a month when Popculture was strictly operating via online shopping and curbside pick-up because of COVID-19, the couple had to furlough their entire staff, they said. Yet, the vast majority of workers returned when the Woos reopened. Justin sees Popculture less as a business than a community where everyone has a say, he added.
“When we come up with a new popcorn flavor, [our employees] get to try it and tell me what they think,” Justin continued. “They get input on logos, uniforms, or whatever we’re doing. Sometimes the answer is not going to be what they want to hear, but they all get a chance to be a part of it.”
Along with deep employee involvement, Melody said, they partner with such local businesses as Buffalo State Pizza and Spanish Gardens Taco Seasoning, as well as being the official popcorn of the Kansas City Mavericks.
“With these partnerships between our customers, employees and other businesses, it’s really all about being approachable and open to whatever opportunities that may come our way,” Melody said.
“We don’t have egos — those things just get in the way,” Justin added. “If the best idea in the room is from a kid fresh out of high school, awesome! That’s the way we’ve always operated.”
As a risk-taker when it comes to new flavors and ideas, Justin said he has no plans of slowing down.
“Once I make a flavor, I don’t take my foot off the gas. It’s onto the next one,” he said. “We’re about asking ourselves, ‘What’s the next thing we can do to make Popculture, well, pop?’ And then we find out how to execute it.”
With online shopping continuing to be a significant piece of their business model, the Woos said their next goal is to ship to a customer in Alaska — the last of the 50 states to order from Popculture.
“We didn’t buy this shop thinking we were going to get rich,” the two said, laughing. “We aim to make people happy, and with that, everything else falls into place.”