Lee Ekstrom started Lil’ Buddy’s Popcorn three years ago in downtown Oregon, Wisconsin. He founded a landscape company twenty years ago and has since been inspired to pursue a fun, side business selling gourmet popcorn and Chicago style hot dogs. The atmosphere is fun, stress-free, and happy. The customer always comes first. Whether customers or delivery drivers, Lee makes an effort to talk to each person who comes in as if they are old friends.
You have to go in 110%, you cannot go in half way and a lot of people do and those people fail. And in my mind I never fail. And I’ve talked to other business owners and you don’t know how many times people have come up to me and go, “oh my gosh business is just horrible, I don’t know what to do,” and all this. And I, I would never say that. Even if business was slow, I would never walk up to anybody and say, “oh man, I’m hurtin’, I’m hurtin’!” No, things are great! Always great—it’s all about positive attitude. Never let ‘em see you sweat, ever! I like to walk into a room and be a ray of sunshine to everybody. Even if I’m not in that great of a mood; it doesn’t matter. That’s how I go through my day.
So, my typical day starts leavin’ the house about 7am. I take my daughter to school. I stop by the shop. I look over everything from the night before, ‘bout a quick ten minute walk around just to make sure I don’t need anything—everything looks good no water lines are busted. I mean there are the little things no one ever thinks about, you know I’m always just lookin’ for potential problems. Everything looks good, I lock up the shop and I leave, I go to my landscaping business. I work there ‘til about 9am and then I come back to this shop and then I spend about the next half hour getting everything prepared for the day. That’s turning on all the slushie machines, getting tomatoes, onions cut, loading the cash register, making sure I have change for the paper, whatever it takes for that day to happen. And then I leave.
The store is opened by my first employee that works the day shift and she arrives about 10:30. I usually then check in about noon, at the start of the lunch hour to make sure she doesn’t need anything. Did she run out of money? If everything is good I leave again for the rest of the day in the landscaping business, come back about maybe four o’clock. Check. That’s the start of the second shift. Make sure everything is still good. Everything is good. We can usually then call it a day after that. And the girls that run this place are amazing. I train everybody to be a manager and I find that helps a lot. Or we would be here nonstop. You can’t be here nonstop. It just, you’ll go crazy you know. You gotta trust your people to do quality work for you and if you’re hovering over them, they won’t do it. They have to learn how to do it. And it makes them nervous you know.
But that’s your typical day. Now, Fridays and Saturdays are my popcorn making days and I will be here all day all night making popcorn for the week. I’ve been in business so long I don’t notice—doesn’t bother me. Twelve, fourteen hour day is nothin’ you know. I can take maybe a Monday afternoon off. I just take whenever I can, it doesn’t matter. I don’t think of things in, “oh man, Monday through Friday, weekends off,” it doesn’t mean nothing to me you know. And the beauty is that I have the flexibility to be able to do things for the family. I can go to my daughter’s concerts and this and that. And coming with flexibility, sure you gotta pay the price. You always have to answer to somebody. So, if I take a Friday afternoon off I may have to work Saturday, but, big deal, I just saw my kid sing in a chorus concert. There’re a lot of parents that miss stuff like that.
I had the education of hard knocks. You know I started my [landscaping] business when I was twenty-seven and I thought I knew everything…nothing really scared me. Like most people assume it’s just super super hard, you know… and it is! Don’t get me wrong, but you know it’s all just time and effort of what you put into it. I mean the school of hard knocks is very very humbling.
When we started Lil’ Buddy’s three years ago, what we didn’t know—I mean the school of hard knocks is very, very humbling. The first day we opened we literally were so swamped we looked at each other… we didn’t know what to do. And luckily her [my wife’s] cousin, Kim—they own a shop in Oregon and they’ve been doin’ this for years in the food service industry. And she actually literally came down here and told us just to step back and took over. And we watched her and went, “oh, okay this is how you do it.” Just take a deep breath. Cuz I run pretty hard and I go, “waaaah!!” going all crazy, you know and she was the calming force that said, “this is how you handle it.” And like I teach every employee here, don’t let the customer see you sweat. You know, you’re always cool and collected. Even if you make mistakes, it doesn’t matter. Smile. They don’t know anything. We learned a lot from her and after our first day we had to shut down for two days cuz we sold out of everything (laughs) and we thought we had a lot.
I have no competition. No one does gourmet popcorn well around here and no one sells a true authentic Chicago style hot dog. We will always just keep doing what we do and we will just expand what we are here…I figured if I can do popcorn and Chicago dogs I’ve got a little bit of greatness right there. You can’t remain stagnant. Too many businesses, they come up with a model and they stick with it. I think you should always constantly evolve and change. I describe it as an interesting place we’re interesting people and we have interesting stuff to sell. That small town feel…you don’t want to lose sight of that.
Oregon for about the past 15 years has been a pretty dead bedroom community. And since I started this place I work real close with the chamber president who came aboard about the same time and we made a pact together that we gotta bring life back down to this town. It’s a great little town and we do whatever it takes to bring people down here.
You can always come in here and find somethin’ totally different. Most of these other popcorn places have five or six flavors they market. That’s it. I can go through my folders right now of my popcorn I make and I bet you I’m over sixty right now. I’d rather produce that. Like my wife said, people want different stuff: change. But I understand that from a business point of view when you get large like that, they have to do that. I’d rather not do that right now. It’s good to be king. I know that sounds so cliché, but that’s literally what I tell myself every morning. And the least favorite part about it is being up at two in the morning going, “oh my gosh, I’m the king.” There’s a lot of pressure. People rely on you for paychecks and business and you know there’s a lot of bills involved in this.
You know…our store is very visual. We keep it clean. Spotless. Neat lookin’. We don’t have trash layin’ around. And we’re always welcoming to other businesses downtown. Promoting ourselves, promoting downtown business is huge. We get to know these people. Make ‘em feel very welcome. In today’s society—oh my gosh—hospitality management is a dying art. Nobody knows how to treat people with kindness and respect anymore. We do. We get a lot of regular folks that come in and actually I think they like comin’ in here because of the people that work here. I mean the product is wonderful but we give them such an… overwelcoming is not the term, but we are so hospitable to people I think they get a kick out of it. Very rarely do you have an unhappy person in here.
My dad taught me years ago, “right or wrong, let the customer always be right,” and we do. We take advice from almost everybody. We love suggestions. You’d be amazed by the flavors that customers come up with. We do special orders. You know, I don’t sweat if I lose a couple dollars here and there. It’s not worth it cuz they usually walk away happy and they’ll be back. We’re a small company but, in all my suppliers eyes, we’re a big deal. Name recognition is huge. About twenty years ago also when I went into business, I vowed to be on everybody’s A-list. I feel by doing that I get special treatment. When I need somethin’, they will do whatever it takes to get that product to me. So with that said, I always pay them immediately, I’m polite to ‘em. I strike up friendships with people. I don’t just show up and go, “okay I need this, send it to me.” No, I get to know these people. And these people know my family. They know my employees. They know our name. You don’t have to be the wealthiest to be famous.
— Ruby Carpenter