Kernels of truth

Jan 30, 2008 at 12:00 am

As they have done every holiday season for 75 years, the Detroit Popcorn Company just finished churning out thousands of decorative tins full of flavored popcorn. But this past Christmas was the last time they were made in Detroit.

The company, founded in 1923 by Samuel Carmas, had its first location in a little shop on 24th Street near McGraw. But a recent move out of its Greenfield Road location, south of Schoolcraft on the city's west side, means it has left Detroit for good. Like many small businesses before them, it relocated to the suburbs and took a long history with it, a routine business decision in Detroit.

"We're a Detroit company, but you can't grow in the city. You just can't," says David Farber, the company's 48-year-old owner. "In a way I feel somewhat guilty leaving Detroit, but I have to do what's best for me and my family and my employees. I feel bad."

He bought the old business two years ago, when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. "I wanted the opportunity to turn something around," Farber says.

When he took over, it was like a lot of small city businesses on their last legs, with a shrinking customer base, dwindling profits and diminishing product quality. For example, Farber says various owners grew weary with the business' financial struggles and eventually cut butter usage down from 10 pounds per batch to two.

"We dug through the archives and we found the original formula, these old formulas that they were using in the '30s," he says. "I said, 'Let's use this formula,' and that's what we're using today. So we're back up to 10 pounds of butter, real butter and real caramel; we even found the caramel company that's been around forever that they were originally using."

Beyond selling flavored popcorn coated in real cheese, brown-sugared caramel or fatty butter ("I'm not selling health here, this is a treat," Farber says), the company rents equipment for making cotton candy, baking waffles, popping popcorn and creating Sno-Kones at home parties.

But even as it produced collectible Detroit tins featuring historical photos of city landmarks — "the coolest freakin' tin I've ever seen," Farber says — the company was gradually moving equipment into Redford Township.

Business is booming on, Farber says. Plus, commercially, he supplies several southeastern Michigan cities and school districts in the suburbs. His reason for moving out of the city is due to crime fears, exorbitant city taxes and fees, and what he sees as neighborhoods and their business arteries neglected by city officials.

"They're concentrating in a small pocket downtown, but this is a big city," he says. "They've done nothing down here. Nothing. They've cut the police. It's the dumbest place you can cut. Push the panic button — they'll be here tomorrow."

"This has been a real hurdle," he continues, "because you can't bring suburban women into the city and expect them to come shopping. They just don't do it. We get very, very few women in here unless they're escorted by a man. I need to bring people into my store."

James Canning, the mayor's deputy press secretary, disputes Farber's assessments of the city's efforts toward small businesses. "There's a bunch of stuff we're doing, and I think he's painting in a broad stroke," he says.

City officials say they are willing to work with any business thinking of leaving the city to persuade them to stay. "If there are concerns about what the city can do, give us the opportunity to try to help them," says Marja Winters, director of the Office of Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization. "We'd love to have that conversation with them."

"I recognize the fact that it's a very challenging economy in the city of Detroit. Any time we can encourage someone to either come to the city or help existing businesses in the city of Detroit, we will work to do that, and if there are resources within our repertoire that we can use to help them grow or stabilize, we are willing to put that on the table."

But Farber says ultimately the city could do little to keep his company here. "There's no traffic here," he says. "Greenfield's not one of those roads people go down." His new location on Telegraph, south of Five Mile Road, he believes, will bring thousands more drivers past the store daily.

The move is a reminder that, despite the gains downtown, the rest of the city is still struggling to keep residents and businesses from moving to the suburbs. "I don't want to dog the city, but, believe me, there are many reasons to move," he says. "I know when to fold 'em. It's time to get out of here."

Detroit Popcorn Company is now located at 14950 Telegraph Rd., Redford Twp.; 313-387-1600.

Detroitblogger John scours the city for hidden gems. Send comments to [email protected]