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No reining in Raglan popcorn business!

There’s no horsing around by “American Bill” when it comes to making popcorn.
Where others might make a bowl or two as a quick snack, the Raglan man’s churning out 3000 bags of “Sweet As” kettle corn a week from the unlikeliest of spaces — two horse stalls and a tack room beneath his Wainui Road home of six years.
It was cool down there when the Chronicle visited last week, and with the way summer’s shaping up that could be a good thing because the process of popping corn at a rate of one bag per minute seemed like hot work.
And come February when Bill Neal gets his deluxe model popcorn machine delivered in kitset form from the States he’s going to be even busier, producing 100,000 bags a week at a rate of one bag per second.
“This is just the beginning,” says Bill, 54, who started making popcorn commercially only a few months ago in the basement that once housed a couple of horses. “We want to go nationwide.”
Sweet As should be in Pak ’n Save — and right across the country — within six months if things go Bill’s way. He says he’s just waiting on barcoding and pricing details from Foodstuffs, New Zealand’s largest retail organisation.
Meantime Bill’s selling his $2 and $5 bags of kettle corn through several stores in Raglan, and delivered his first lot to Whatawhata gas station and pub last week. Just the smaller packets to the pub, he says, because it’s salty enough to go down well with the beer-drinking punters.
He’s also selling his popcorn every weekend from Frankton Market where “everybody loves it”, he reckons. Like some other stallholders he offers free samples in what they call the five-step test … within five steps of taking away and trying the freebie, the customer’s invariably back to buy more.
Despite making mountains of the subtly flavoured sweet-salty stuff, Bill says he still can’t stop eating it himself. “It’s ridiculous.”
And his toddler son Ryan’s just the same. Bill reckons the whole idea of the gamble did in fact come from his two-year-old, who he says uttered the single word “popcorn” after he talked to him man to man about finding something else to do.
A back injury earlier this year had put Bill’s local excavation business on hold, so he leased back the popcorn machine he’d just sold and got popping.
Now he’s found his way into a niche market because, while there’s plenty of mainstream popcorn in the shops, “nobody does kettle corn commercially”.
Making kettle corn, he explains, is a special process which has to be done in a kettle — a large cauldron-style cooker. The oil in which the corn is popped has to be heated to a certain temperature, and the sugar caramelised around the popping corn.
He sugars “lightly” for the Kiwi taste — Americans “overdo” the sugar, he says — and the kettle corn’s salted too at the end of the process.
Bill bags it all by hand but that’s about to change, he says, because the food processing and packaging plant he’s expecting is “totally automated”.
He says he can hardly wait to try out some other flavours like coconut or cinnamon. But meantime he’s got his hands full not only supplying local outlets but also marketing Sweet As to schools throughout the country — Raglan Area School’s one of them — as both a healthy snack food and a potential fundraiser.
Bill’s also going to be busy popping corn at some upcoming markets and events such as Wings Over Wairarapa and the Rotorua A&P Show.
But he’s adamant that things “started in Raglan and will hopefully stay in Raglan”, and is negotiating for a site at Nau Mai industrial estate just east of town now that business is racing ahead.

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