Poppin’ Up Some Kindness: A Popcorn Shoppe’s Mission to be Bigger Than Themselves

The Popcorn Shoppe, located in the Metro Centre shopping plaza, 4700 N. University St., in Peoria, IL, is locally owned and operated by business partners and fiancés, Matt George and Niki Duckworth. The store was originally created and owned by Richard Williams in Lacon IL, and the pair befriended and helped Richard in some business endeavors in exchange for popcorn making knowledge and equipment. Niki and Matt made that plunge into the popcorn making world after losing their first child together, Ryan, in November 2019. The loss of that child left an emptiness that was filled through the happiness they could bring to the world through learning the art of making delicious popcorn. The mission to live a life being bigger than themselves was started, and all money raised through making and sharing popcorn with friends and family went to help other families of stillborn children through Mother’s Milk Bank of Illinois.

Richard decided to pursue other opportunities, and wanted to sell the business. Niki and Matt loved this opportunity, and agreed to purchase the business. Niki was working in manufacturing, and Matt in banking; neither had any prior attempts at owning a business. This was a perfect time for the new ownership exchange and new beginning of The Popcorn Shoppe. Niki and Matt owned the store in Lacon from February - June 2022, and could not produce a profitable month of sales in the location. Frustrated but determined, Niki and Matt decided to move the store’s location out of Lacon and to the Metro Centre in Peoria.

Blood, sweat and tears went into everyday either renovating the building or trying to go mobile with a tent and tables selling freshly made popcorn and perfectly sweetened lemon shake ups. The pair got their first real challenge at a vendor event at the 4th of July Celebration in Eureka IL. That day saw a crowd of over 5,000 people and Matt and Niki were astonished when their stand had at times 40 people deep, ready and eager to try what they were offering. At the end of the day and 550 shake ups later, they knew they had a wonderful business opportunity ahead of them. The Popcorn Shoppe mobile was truly born that day and has been a year in the making to upgrade from a tent and tables to a pop-up camper, fully gutted and remade to allow staff to serve now virtually anywhere the trailer can park. This new and improved mobility will be featured at Peoria’s Speedway Second Sunday Market and Junction City’s Wednesday Farmer’s Market, along with many other events throughout the summer.

The Popcorn Shoppe got its new start in the Metro Centre through funding from several sources, including private investors and through acceptance of the RISE Grant program offered through the city of Peoria. The pair was introduced to this possibility of a grant through the economic development team in Peoria, which included a requirement of attending a seminar hosted by Bradley University’s Illinois Small Business Development Center (SBDC). It was through this seminar that the pair met Christopher Youngmark, Assistant SBDC Director, and has since began a friendship through many phone calls discussing the success and future of The Popcorn Shoppe. Chris also introduced the pair to Theresa Bloom, Social Media Advisor & Digital Manager for the Turner Center for Entrepreneurship at Bradley. Through this partnership, a Bradley student is now developing the website design and functionality for The Popcorn Shoppe, and upon completion of the project the business will then have a live, working website. Ownership of The Popcorn Shoppe is truly appreciative of the opportunities partnering with the SBDC, especially through Chris and Theresa.

The business has seen its share of pitfalls along the way, from nearly every struggle a small business owner could seem to face. Staffing has been and continues to be the biggest struggle of the business, finding people that truly share the same compassion and love for the business the owners have. The Popcorn Shoppe, when it first moved to Peoria, was approached by CWTC (Where People with Disabilities Live, Work, and Grow) about hiring disabled people to work at the shop. Currently, the longest tenured employee besides ownership is a disabled adult with Down Syndrome, and the hours he spends popping at the store are the happiest hours he spends all week, according to the employees that work alongside Daniel. Matt and Niki have also found value in the enthusiastic work the disabled staff love to do when they are available, and two gentlemen there also label the cups and bags that the store uses when packaging its products. Matt, moved so strongly by how interacting with those at the center has gone so far, went through training and became a job coach himself to help disabled adults get job placement.

As with many businesses, another problem faced was that banks did not want to lend money to the pair without business history, and they asked the bank how they could get history without having money to be in business to create the history. Frustrated, they found other ways to fund the business, including personal investments, thrifty shopping, and patience. “Finding a three compartment sink in great condition for less than a power bill was a godsend,” said Niki. Other bargains found included stainless steel tables, a mobile preparation cooler, new caramelizer machine, cotton candy machine, and other great offers presented from many past workers looking to move out of the industry. Without all the pieces falling into place, the Metro Centre location may never have seen its doors open for the first time.

After all the challenges faced day in and day out, The Popcorn Shoppe continues to grow every day in its mission to be “Bigger Than Yourself.”

“We’ve made it nine months already, what’s going to stop us now?” states Matt. “There are so many resources out there to help business owners, and there’s a lot of resources to help owners be successful.”

The Popcorn Shoppe started a BYOB event - Bring Your Own Bucket. The idea behind the once a month event is to have participating customers bring in their own container, and for five dollars up to a five-gallon bucket will be filled with movie buttered popcorn. Each event sponsors a different organization, some of which include Peoria Community Children’s Theatre, Peoria Academy and Peoria Heights school districts, Susan G. Komen More Than Pink Walk, and Washington IL VFW. The height of the event so far has seen 213 buckets, which occurred on New Year’s Eve 2022, and raised $565 that day alone.

Ownership truly considers that everyone is a family that walks through their doors. The goal asked of all employees is that each customer leave with a smile greater than when they entered. Seeing customers get chills when they take their first sip of a shake up, or try cinnamon roll popcorn, Matt’s personal favorite recipe - that joy makes every day worth the challenges faced each day to grow and adapt and learn how to be a better owner.

The Popcorn Shoppe owes its success to many people, and ownership loves to express its thanks with every opportunity to speak with SBDC staff. The partnership continues to develop and Chris and Theresa remain an important part of mentorship and guidance. Matt and Niki are excited to release to the world peoriapopcornshoppe.com when completed, all thanks to Bradley University’ SBDC. The opportunity to work for themselves has been the best decision either made in their careers, and watching The Popcorn Shoppe become a part of so many people’s lives gives new meaning and purpose to the pair, always eager to meet a new face and brighten everyone’s day, one bag of popcorn at a time!

Contact Information:
peoriapopcornshoppe.com (when completed)