Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/11/2021 (280 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Have popcorn, will travel.
It’s a few minutes after 10 a.m. at Beaches Sugar Shack, a cheerily painted, aromatic confectionary that opened inside Garden City Shopping Centre in late October, steps away from that mall’s food court. Owner Daneal Gard, who runs a like-named, seasonal operation in Grand Marais, hence the "Beaches" on his signboard, is giving a final set of instructions to an employee ahead of hitting the road in a vehicle already loaded to the hilt with dozens of bags of popcorn.
Every Tuesday and Friday Gard, or Popcorn Dan as he’s come to be known, hand delivers pre-ordered, freshly popped, movie theatre-style popcorn directly to customers’ doorsteps. Today’s route will take him from Beausejour to St. Norbert, an odyssey that suits the 45-year-old entrepreneur, casually dressed in sneakers, jeans and a Superman T-shirt, just fine.
"My plan is to hire a few drivers down the line — especially if we go from offering twice-a-week delivery to everyday service, which is my ultimate goal — but for now, I’m more than happy to handle the drop-offs myself," he says, reviewing his list of stops, close to 30 on this occasion.
"Besides," he adds with a wink, "there are a lot worse ways to spend a morning or afternoon than driving around in a van that smells like popcorn."
American movie theatre chain AMC Entertainment announced last week that it would begin offering its AMC Theatres Perfectly Popcorn for home delivery in the new year, a move that will allow film buffs still hesitant about sitting in a crowded cinema the opportunity to enjoy their favourite salty treat in the comfort of their own living rooms.
Know that saying about how great minds think alike? That definitely appears to be the case here; only Gard beat AMC’s highbrows to the hot, buttered punch by more than a year.
Gard, who lives in Belair with his wife Shanna, was working as a handyman in July 2020, doing odd jobs here and there, when he purchased a commercial snow-cone maker from a person who assured him he’d be swimming in moolah the second he set it up in cottage country. That turned out to be a bit of an exaggeration. Following a sunny, long weekend during which he netted all of three sales, he told himself, "Well, I guess it’s back to home repairs."
Not long thereafter, however, a separate fellow who manages several food kiosks along Grand Beach’s walkway offered to sell him a large-scale popcorn popper. Gard, who ran the Gard-N-Grill restaurant, formerly on Arlington Street, before moving to the lake in 2016, wasn’t sold on the idea initially. But given that movie theatres in Manitoba were, at the time, either closed or operating at limited capacity, he ultimately changed his mind, figuring if people couldn’t go to the movies, what if he brought the movies to them, in the form of a bag of theatre-style popcorn?
"None, zero," he says with a chuckle, when asked how much experience he had with his purchase, a glassed-in contraption that turns out 38 kilograms of popcorn at a time. Sure, he’d heated up his share of Jiffy Pop through the years, but experimenting with a mix of oils, butters and salts, all the while trying to decide which brand of popcorn to go with — he ultimately settled on a high-expansion, gluten-free variety — was a whole, new ball game.
"Let’s just say there was a lot of trial and error," he continues, recalling evenings when he was still pop-pop-popping away at 3 a.m., doing his utmost not to rouse the rest of the household.
By the end of November 2020 Gard was starting to get a handle on things. His daughter Ellana, in her early 20s, placed a blurb on a Winnipeg buy-and-sell Facebook page, advertising fresh popcorn for home delivery. Within a few days they were bombarded with orders from people living as far north as Pine Falls, as far east as Lac du Bonnet and as far south as St. Adolphe.
Since then, it’s been the same pattern, pretty much week in, week out. Even after establishing a stand-alone shop in Grand Marais last June which, in addition to offering 40 flavours of popcorn (Ketchup! Cheesy dill! Double caramel!) also carries a wide variety of sweets, including candy apples and candy floss, Gard continued to hop in his van twice a week to fetch popcorn for those unable to make it out to the lake. (Ask him about the time he spent 90 minutes traversing downtown Winnipeg unable to find a Vaughan Street address before realizing his destination was actually Selkirk’s Vaughan Road.)
The notion to open a satellite store in the city came later in the summer, days after he was a featured vendor at a pair of night markets held at Assiniboia Downs. He sold $3,500 worth of popcorn the first night and doubled that total two weeks later.
"That’s when I realized I could make some serious cash at this," he says matter-of-factly, noting the Garden City location is a perfect fit as it’s on the north side of the city, an easy commute from Belair, where, for the time being, he and a staff of three, his daughter included, still do the majority of the production work.
Like he mentioned, a future plan is to expand his delivery schedule from two days a week now that he has a more centralized setup. He also intends to get his vehicle wrapped, so that it looks like a giant bucket of popcorn when it’s rolling down the street. Even better, he intends to ape one of his mall neighbours’ most popular promotions.
"You know how Smitty’s has wing night, every week?" he asks, nodding toward the casual dining establishment, situated 50 or so paces away from his shop. "Tied to that, I’m going to start offering a wing-line of popcorn with flavours like smoky buffalo, which we’ll have on special whenever it’s wing night over there." (Mark us down for a bag of bacon and cheese, please and thanks.)
Finally, if there’s one thing Gard has learned since reinventing himself as Popcorn Dan, it’s that everybody on the receiving end of a bag of popcorn — be it a customer at one of his two stores or a person greeting him at their front door — goes away with a smile on their face.
"It’s always a pleasant transaction because they’re either treating themselves or treating somebody else," he says, sliding into the driver’s seat. "I get that nobody really needs a bag of popcorn, but you know what? After everything we’ve been through the last year-and-a-half, treating yourself to whatever isn’t the worst thing in the world, right?"
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.