Does one’s name determine one’s destiny? It seems that it does in the case of Carahmel Villegas — “Sugar” to her family and friends — co-owner of Toronto Popcorn Company, which has been enjoying the sweet smell of success since in it opened in July. It was the popcorn of choice at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and today, among its steady clientele are high-end catering companies around the city.
A pastry chef in her native Philippines, Carahmel and her husband, Joseph, have concocted over 100 flavours for their kettle corn, which they sell out of a small corner shop at Kensington Market.
Imagine digging into this panoply of flavours of crunchy kettle popcorn when you’re watching, say, this Sunday’s Super Bowl: Maple bacon. Apple pie. Hot Cinnamon. Black Cherry. Cookies and Cream. Piña colada. Buffalo Kick. Garlic Parmesan. Vanilla Cream. Toffee. Sour Cream and Chives. Root Beer. Pizza. Lemon. Watermelon. Orange. Jalapeño Cheddar. Cinnamon Toast. Banana. Blue Raspberry. Blueberry. Tiramisu. Classic Caramel, Salted Caramel, Tuxedo (dark, white and milk chocolate), Moomba (black cherry, white chocolate and coconut) …
Can’t decide which one to nosh on? No problem. There are mason jars filled with popcorn of every imaginable flavour and colour that you are free to sample. Classified as sweet, savoury and premium, the flavours rotate over the year and there are 30 available in the store on any given day. Among the mainstays are Maple Bacon, which have bits of real bacon and use the beloved Canadian maple syrup.
Can’t go to the shop? They deliver.
The Origami sat down with Joseph about how he and Carahmel became entrepreneurs since they and their three children immigrated to Toronto in 2011, how their lives have changed and what their vision is for their company’s future. Excerpts:
The big move
We first came here in 2008 to check on the properties that my sister-in-law had – she’s into flipping houses. While here, our first child suffered a second-degree burn and for the next two months a nurse came to take care of him. When we went back to the Philippines we valued the health-care service we experienced and we decided to move here. With my background in electronics and communications engineering, I was accepted as a federal skilled worker.
I thought it was going to be an easy transition, but when I came they didn’t honour my licence. I decided to apply for a master’s program at Ryerson but wasn’t accepted even though my GPA was higher than another applicant I knew; I was told the Philippines doesn’t have a K-12 system. So I said, “ ‘I would have appreciated it if you’d told me that beforehand,’ and then I asked, ‘Do you think the acceleration due to gravity in the Philippines is different than in Canada?’”
It was very disheartening at first. Our relative came here 40 years and the transition was easy – he was a doctor and later became head of a radiology department.
I became part of the Geek Squad at Best Buy and within four months, I got a job with the Ontario government.
Kernel of the kernel
It started out of boredom (laughs). I was working in telecommunications for the provincial government so I was doing well, career-wise. But I was working 60 hours and staring at the computer even on weekends. Sugar was taking care of our three kids and while she enjoyed it, she also knew she wanted more. We both had a dynamic lifestyle in the Philippines.
One day Sugar showed me the photo of a kettle corn machine that was being sold by an elderly couple in Whitby and she said, “Why don’t we try it?” We thought it was something we could do on weekends. The couple had imported the machine from the U.S. and they had been selling just the sweet and salty flavour for over eight years. They were like road warriors – they had a list of festivals throughout the year and they sold their popcorn there. No one in their family wanted to pick up the business.
My vision, however, wasn’t a roving business. It would be too much work.
We chanced upon this spot when we were driving around looking for a space that had visibility. We just walked in. I was dismayed when I first saw it – it was dilapidated and it looked like a drug den. I thought about how all of our budget would go towards renovation. But my brother-in-law helped me to construct the counter.
Taste of Toronto
The name was Sugar’s brainchild. She said that Toronto is a well-loved brand. We also decided that we wanted flavours that would be as diverse as our beloved city.
Since we have space issues, we rotate the flavours by season. Last fall, we had a tasting promo and we had a Halloween mix. We also created a Christmas holiday mix. We buy 80 per cent of our spices from Carlos House of Spice here in the market. We use real Oreo cookies for our cookies and cream flavour.
The all-time favourite is Classic Caramel — even seniors can relate to it, even my Lola (grandmother). For savoury, the cheese-based ones are favourites, including Jalapeño Cheddar, Bacon and Cheddar. We were at the first Union Holiday Market (last year) and we sold at least 2,000 bags of the Caramel and Buffalo Cheddar flavours over six days. We were making the popcorn [from scratch] and we couldn’t keep up (laughs).
Life has changed
My wife grew up in a manufacturing environment. I’ve always been slow and steady and concerned about job security. When I was employed I thought I was really going to just stay and retire because I felt secure.
I had to step out of my comfort zone. I didn’t realize I was going to be more driven. [This business] is like my fourth child. Nobody is going to persevere more than us. We have to stay on top of things.
Sugar is the lead here on weekdays and now I watch the kids. She’s the back end; I’m the front end of the business. We tried other businesses before – we imported raw material for jewelry and she used to do handcrafted jewelry at the arts market. But since we became very busy during the holidays, we thought we’d better focus here.
I still get to do things that I did when I was in IT – I’ve created my own metrics, my own infrastructure and server for our business. It’s not ontario.ca but it’s my own and there’s a certain fulfillment in that.
People have asked me why I’m doing this – ba’t ang layo? [Why is it so different from your previous career background?]. But I choose to focus on what’s important – I look at my kids, the people we’re able to help and it’s fulfilling. The mere fact that I file my taxes under my own company name – there’s a certain satisfaction [in that].
I learned that I could have a career in sales (laughs). It caught me by surprise; I used to be confined in cubicles and didn’t know I had the talent.
My wife also has had an opportunity. For the first two years she saw my career skyrocket and I knew she was thinking, “What about me?” She was waiting for her break and that was a contributing factor to starting our business. I saw the satisfaction and excitement she had when she got her food handler certificate.
Secrets of success
More and more I have come to realize that no man is an island. If you have trust [in others] that’s where you can push the company. You’re confident that the business will go on and how you treat customers are the same standards they will apply.
I’m not saying customer is always right — there are boundaries —but you always have to listen to constructive criticism, you can’t be close minded, you won’t evolve.
We’re looking to expand. We really wanted this shop to have an open kitchen concept but the owner said it wasn’t possible – it’s a 200-year-old building. We’re looking at various locations now.