The newly designed bags of popcorn had scarcely arrived at Whole Foods shelves when Renette Dallas discovered something was wrong. Her company's product -- Dallas' Healthy & Delicious Popcorn -- was being scanned at checkout for $1.79 each instead of $2.99.
"I'm just like, 'Nooooo,' " Dallas said. "This is not happening."
A communication glitch between her company and Whole Foods allowed the bar codes of the new, large popcorn bags to be scanned at the same price as the small ones. It was just one of several little fires that the 40-year-old entrepreneur has had to stamp out as she's built a multifaceted business on products for the health-conscious.
Dallas left a lucrative engineering job five years ago and used her own money to finance her popcorn business. Her gourmet-style popcorn is sold through several food co-ops, as well as Whole Foods and Giant Food stores from Pennsylvania to North Carolina.
Dallas Popcorn LLC now sells between 7,000 and 12,000 bags of popcorn each month, generating sales of between $10,000 and $15,000, she said. She declined to disclose her profit.
Americans consume about 17 billion quarts of popped corn annually, or 59 quarts per man, woman and child, according to the Popcorn Board, a nonprofit organization funded by U.S. Popcorn Processors. Dallas believes there's a growing market for her unique brand of popcorn.
It's hot-air popped, not heated by vegetable oil or doused with butter. The popcorn is mixed with extra virgin olive oil and nutritional yeast, which gives it a cheesy flavor. For a little kick, she adds herbs and spices such as garlic powder, sea salt, cayenne pepper, oregano, basil and thyme. The six "knock-your-socks-off flavors," Dallas said, are Garlic Overdose, Italy in a Bag, Hot Attack, Ecstasy, All That Spice and Absolutely No Salt.
"We're all hooked on it here," said Terri Tolliver, a special projects producer for WTTG-TV, where she brings Dallas' Popcorn in her favorite flavors, All That Spice and Italy in a Bag.
Dallas, a native Washingtonian, has a degree in architecture from the University of Maryland and a civil engineering degree from the University of the District of Columbia. She joined the Air National Guard for two years and served for three years in the Air Force Reserve, where she taught an engineering class.
Dallas's training led to her interest in nutrition and physical fitness. She started working as a personal trainer and chef for clients, some of whom paid her $4,000 a month to prepare meals and help them improve their physical shape. Her clients loved her popcorn and encouraged her to sell it in stores.
"And before you know it, all these stores started calling me," Dallas said.
In fall 1999, she started selling. She and a group of friends would pop and package the corn in Ziploc bags at her house. It took only a few weeks, she said, before three local health-food shops began carrying her product. They sold about 250 bags per month, ringing up roughly $500 in sales.
In early 2000, she became the host of a weekly syndicated radio talk show, "The Dallas Fitness Program," on Saturday mornings at WOL-AM (1450) in the District and WOLB-AM (1010) in Baltimore. Dallas promoted her product line through a mostly African American listening audience. She also led talks at a Baptist church, blending nutrition and fitness with holistic themes. Her company doesn't have an advertising budget, but word of her popcorn spread.
Two years after Dallas' Popcorn began, Whole Foods stores in the mid-Atlantic region began selling her product. The stores sold an average of 3,000 bags per month, with $6,000 in sales by the first quarter of 2002, she said.
"People who want to eat healthier popcorn choose Dallas overall," said Earnest Dalton, team leader of grocery at Whole Foods Market in the Kentlands area of Gaithersburg. He said the store orders four to six cases of the top flavors -- All that Spice and Garlic Overdose -- every two weeks. "She makes a great product . . . I'm a Dallas fanatic."
Dallas said she wanted to make sure her popcorn took off, so she recruited people who participate in her 5 a.m. fitness boot camp at Anacostia Park in Southeast Washington to staff tasting stations at the stores every weekend for several weeks. She gave her recruits a discount on the $150 per month boot camp fee.
"It's definitely pulling its own weight," said Mike Butler, grocery team leader for Whole Foods Market on Pennsylvania Avenue in Philadelphia. "I order just as much of that as I do anything else." The store gets four to eight cases of large bags twice a week.
Coy Dunston, owner of Secrets of Nature Health Foods in the District, said Dallas' Popcorn is a hot seller in his shop. The popcorn is high in fiber, which is "good for the respiratory system," he said. The garlic helps with blood pressure; other herbs, with libido. "It fitted in with my concept of eating," Dunston said.
No other store sells more of Dallas's product than Glut Food Co-op in Mount Rainier, which sells about 450 bags of the popcorn weekly.
"Lots of people come in, and they're excited about popcorn that's healthy for them and ready to eat," said Ravi Srinivas, a collective member of the store. Big supporters of her program, he said, stop by to buy.
"She's a real popular lady, and lots of people trust her and her products," he said.
Last summer, Giant Food stores began carrying Dallas' Popcorn, selling an average of 3,500 bags per month with sales of $7,000, she said. Dallas is now working on getting her products into Wal-Mart and Costco stores.
She can forge ahead, since her company in March hired manufacturer G&S Foods Inc. of Abbottstown, Pa., to bag and season the popcorn. It uses blowers that make the popcorn softer and larger, she said. The three hot-air poppers in her old facility could not achieve the same effect.
She also switched two weeks ago to solid-colored bags for her popcorn, helping settle a problem that the big stores had with her product's shelf life and quality. Dallas' Popcorn does not use many preservatives, so the huge store lights often zapped the life of the kernels because they were contained in see-through wrapping, she said.
As for the Whole Foods pricing glitch, that has been resolved.
"A lot of stores just laughed it off," she said. "No big deal."
Just in case, she dropped off two free cases of Dallas' Popcorn bags at the District's P Street NW Whole Foods Market.