“Our first reaction was shock. What are we going to do? “Said Jayme Winter.
What they did is now seen as an example for small businesses across the state. The Winters were part of a Small Business Administration roundtable on September 16 that focused on how three different small businesses have coped with the pandemic.
Jayme and Erich Winter have tackled the pandemic with the motto: “When life throws kernels at you, make popcorn. “
And they made popcorn: Their response to the pandemic included adding a commercial kitchen to make and package popcorn, which they hope to sell in convenience and grocery stores as well as the Millennium Theater. They now produce over 60 flavored varieties, as well as seasonal offerings.
They bought the Southtown Plaza theater in Montevideo in 2017, and renovated and improved it. They said they were only gaining traction in 2019. Just months after the start of 2020, the government ordered cinemas to close.
It was Erich who suggested they keep selling popcorn on weekends. They opened a popcorn phone line and took orders. They sold 50 bags on the first Friday night, each delivering to the cars waiting outside the front door.
The next day Erich arrived at the theater at 4 p.m. and the phone was already ringing. He quickly made a desperate plea for help from Jayme and his sons, now aged 17 and 14, to give him a hand as there were orders for 170 bags.
It continued to grow from there as the community came together to support their business, the Winters said. “This community we live in, Montevideo, we support each other. We step in when someone needs help. We help them. The whole town did this, ”Erich said.
As summer approached and COVID-19 restrictions remained, the Winters decided to do more than just sell popcorn. Erich and his father, Dan, installed an outdoor screen and, with the approval of the city, transformed their parking lot into a pop-up drive-in.
The challenge was to find films. Hollywood did not release new films and some companies, such as Disney, did not allow the showing of films that had already been released. They showed what they could, from films based on the Harry Potter novels to “Jurassic Park” and “Ghostbusters,” knowing that their clients had probably seen them all. Still, they had as many as 60 cars on some nights, with everyone safely removed and taking advantage of the theater concessions outside, they said.
It was at this time that they also began to expand their popcorn line. Erich started out by producing caramel popcorn which he packaged for sale. They quickly started selling gift packs of their popcorn for the holidays.
Government support was very important to the company. A state grant to movie theaters allowed them to install commercial kitchen equipment to make the wide variety of flavored popcorn they now sell.
The theater also got a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, which allowed it to bring back employees. The theater employed 12 people, two adults and 10 teenagers, before the pandemic.
Not all of them chose to return, but keeping in touch with those who did was very important, Jayme said.
The theater is operated on the basis that the customers are guests. “You treat them like they’re entering their home,” Jayme said. Keeping employees who value customers as guests is so important, she said.
The pandemic has shown them how much they value interacting with customers. The absence of that contact has proven to be very difficult, Erich said.
The experience changed their perspective and their plans. In 2019, they were considering an expansion and possibly the acquisition of a second theater. Now they stay focused on the Millennium Theater and want to make the best of it, while also marketing their popcorn outside of the theater.
Last week they installed new luxury recliners for the number two screen. They now offer luxury seating for two of the three screens.
The SBA roundtable moderator was Harry Miller, a volunteer with a program known as SCORE in the Twin Cities to provide mentorship to small business owners. He called their story “remarkable” for resilience and the ability to pivot the business in response to challenges.
He asked Erich and Jayme what lessons they had learned from it. “Don’t give up,” Erich said, explaining how they put everything they had into the business. “If you like to do it, you’ll be fine. It will always work. Whenever we tried to do something the support was there.
Jayme added, who credited Erich with coming up with many ideas for responding to the pandemic: “Don’t be afraid to try new things. Don’t be afraid to text your wife in the middle of the night with a crazy idea. It’s good to try these crazy ideas one day.