From l-r: Chuck Burns, owner; Ed Yeo, business manager; Tom Burns, owner
If you’re at a carnival this summer enjoying some popcorn, cotton candy, or a slushy, it’s likely those treats came from Grand Rapids Popcorn. The concession supply and equipment company, located at 4675 West River Drive in Comstock Park, supplies carnivals throughout nine states including Michigan with everything they need for their concessions, said Tom Burns, who co-owns the company with his brother Chuck Burns.
Roy and Rose Darling, Tom and Chuck Burns’ uncle and aunt, started Grand Rapids Popcorn from their home on Grand Rapids’ west side in 1944 selling popcorn kernels and supplies to theaters and carnivals in the area. The Darlings could never have imagined that their modest business would become the largest concession supplies and equipment company in Michigan. In addition to carnivals, the company sells concession supplies to schools and organizations for fundraisers and events, restaurants, ballparks, arenas, and businesses, in addition to their retail operation. Tom Burns’ sons Mike and Tony Burns also work at the company – Mike is sales manager, and Tony is warehouse manager.
A little more than half of their business is supplying carnivals, said Mike Burns. Each January Tom, Chuck, Mike, and Tony head to Florida where they lease a warehouse in Tampa. Trucks follow throughout the winter from the Comstock Park warehouse loaded with carnival concession supplies – everything from frozen products like hamburgers, brats, and French fries, to popcorn, slushy, and cotton candy supplies, to paper supplies and plastic souvenir cups, to machines they rent and sell to make all that food. They stay in Florida through mid-March supplying carnivals throughout the state, and then return to Comstock Park, continuing to supply the carnivals as they move north. As a job training of sorts, Mike Burns said he and Tony worked as carnival “jumps” a couple summers when they were teenagers, helping to tear down and set up booths and concessions.
Closer to home, about a third of the company’s business is with organizations and schools doing fundraising, restaurants, bars, and businesses throughout Michigan. The rest of the business is the retail operation.
Tom and Chuck Burns, who went to work for their aunt and uncle right out of high school, bought the company from the Darlings in 1984. The business was expanding and to accommodate the need for more space, they bought the Comstock Park property in 1989. They sold part of the property to other businesses, and in 1990 they built and moved into their current building. The nearby expressway is handy for their trucks as well as their customers, said Tom Burns.
At the front of the 35,000 square foot building is the bright, colorful retail store featuring dozens of flavors of popcorn, gift baskets and tins, and machines to rent or buy to make popcorn, cotton candy, slushies and the like. Tom Burns said the retail business was an “afterthought” when they built the building, but the retail and fundraising segments of the business are growing.
The rest of the mammoth building is warehouse that houses pallets of 50 pound bags of popcorn kernels, stacks of boxes of concession supplies, freezers with the burgers and fries, and two loading docks. In the middle of the warehouse is the 1100 square foot production room where the kernels are popped for bags, baskets, and tins. The company goes through more than 1.3 million pounds of kernels a year, using a little over ten percent of that in-house for the popcorn they sell in the retail store. Mike Burns said the family has been known to walk the aisles at Meijer looking for flavor ideas. That resulted in a couple new flavors - strawberry cheesecake, which was well received, and guacamole flavor, which he called a “flunk.”
There are 20 employees, 15 of those full-time year round, including retail and warehouse workers, drivers, salespeople, and accounting. December is their biggest retail season, and they add a half dozen or so employees to make gift baskets and tins and work retail. That’s when they also increase their advertising on television and radio.
The family is originally from the west side of Grand Rapids where both Chuck and Tom Burns attended West Catholic High School. Both Mike and Tony Burns graduated from Sparta High School. Tony graduated from Ferris State University with a major in business, and Mike attended Grand Rapids Community College majoring in business management. They all still live in the Grand Rapids area, and amazingly, they all still like popcorn.