The Engelmann kids don’t just run a kettle corn stand. They’re entrepreneurs dealing with many of the same issues as CEOs of major corporations.
Calli, 16, and Tucker, 14, set prices and figure profit margins based on the cost of corn, oil, sugar and salt in each bag. They schedule jobs, develop workplace procedures, gauge market demand and plan for occupational hazards.
“When we’re cooking, we put on a flannel shirt because if it pops up and the kernel hits you, it burns,” said Tucker, who will be a freshman at Highland High School.
The siblings are selling kettle corn at the Madison County Fair, which runs through July 30. They also set up during two Trenton softball tournaments, a fall festival and Highland’s Fourth of July celebration, Christmas parade and art fair each year.
The business, Sweet Dixie Kettle Corn, is technically owned by their parents, Sean and Julie Engelmann, of rural Trenton. But Calli and Tucker do all the work and share profits.
Sean manages a roofing company, and Julie is project manager for a technology company. They also have a 7-year-old daughter, Brier.
The Engelmanns bought Sweet Dixie to help teach their children responsibility and self-sufficiency. Calli used her earnings to buy her first car, a 2009 black Volkswagon Jetta.
“I just want them to have a good work ethic,” said Julie, 38. “That’s what it really comes down to. I want them to know what things cost. (Calli) appreciates that car way more than she would have if it had been given to her.”
It starts popping really fast, and right in the middle of it, you have to pull the lever back to cut the gas. Otherwise, it will burn. You have to time it right.
Tucker Engelmann on his kettle-corn-making technique
Julie takes pride in seeing the teens shop around to find the best deals on bulk supplies and otherwise manage their hard-earned cash. Calli and Tucker don’t seem to have any complaints.
“It’s nice to have a little money in your pocket to buy some things,” Tucker said.
Meet them at the fair
Sweet Dixie’s red tent stands behind the main pavilion at the Madison County Fair, near vendors selling funnel cakes, tacos and barbecue at Lindendale Park in Highland.
On Tuesday, a commercial-sized fan helped make the afternoon heat seem bearable for Calli and Tucker. That and lemon shake-ups.
“(The tent is) really nice in the wintertime,” said Calli, who will be a junior at Highland High School. “We leave on the propane all the time, and it’s warm.”
Georgia Layloff, 68, of Granite City, stopped by after leaving the park’s Exposition Hall, where she won a blue ribbon for best sunflower seed production in an agriculture show. She ordered one bag of kettle corn, which costs $5.
“I buy it a lot from the people outside Sam’s in Edwardsville,” she said. “I like the sweetness and saltiness of it. I like it when the kernels are puffy. These look good. See how puffy they are?”
Next came Nancy Reaka, 53, of Freeburg, who bought two bags of kettle corn for $8, one to eat while watching the tractor pull and one to take home.
Customers Bernice and Larry Fricke, of Highland, were impressed to learn that Calli and Tucker run a business at such young ages and took the opportunity to tease them a bit.
“At least this is an easy job,” said Bernice, 78. “I had a hard job, milking cows and working on the farm.”
Donna Zobrist, 69, second vice president of the Madison County Fair and friend of the Engelmann family, calls Calli and Tucker “hard-working kids.”
“They’re willing to do whatever you ask them to do,” she said. “The boy did some painting for me, and he just did some little odd jobs here at the fairgrounds, and the girl works at the racetrack every Saturday night.”
Grooming teens for success
Julie and Sean met Sweet Dixie’s former owner at the DuQuoin State Fair in 2010. Julie thought a for-sale sign referred to iron kettles on the counter, but the man wanted to retire and sell everything.
The Engelmanns ended up buying his tent and equipment and getting a quick lesson on kettle-corn-making in his Benton garage. They operated the business as a family several years before turning it over to Calli and Tucker.
I just want them to have a good work ethic. That’s what it really comes down to. I want them to know what things cost. She appreciates that car way more than she would have if it had been given to her.
Julie Engelmann on setting her kids up in business
Today, the teens can handle any mishap and whip up batches of kettle corn in minutes.
They light the gas burner under a large steel drum, pour in a ladle of oil, test the heat with a few kernels, add two liters of popcorn and one liter of sugar and stir with a long-handled wooden paddle.
“It starts popping really fast, and right in the middle of it, you have to pull the lever back to cut the gas,” Tucker said. “Otherwise, it will burn. You have to time it right.”
“If it starts burning, you’ve got to throw the whole thing away,” Calli added. “It will smell burned, and it will taste burned, even if it doesn’t look burned.”
Timing also is key in dumping the drum full of popped kettle corn into a cooling trough with holes that drop unpopped kernels into trays. Next comes salting, more stirring and bagging.
Calli and Tucker also do maintenance, such as cleaning the drum every 10 to 15 batches with an electric grinding brush. At the end of each fair or festival, their parents help them load equipment into a trailer that Sean pulls with his truck.
The siblings generally split profits half and half, but when Calli turned 15, Tucker agreed to give her two-thirds to help her save for a car. She’ll return the favor when he turns 15.
“We get along,” Calli said. “We argue back and forth sometimes about how things should be done, but we work together fine. Now we’ve kind of split it up to where he cooks the kettle corn, we both bag it and I stay at the front and sell it. So we have our own jobs.”