Business is popping for Tom Phillips —— literally. 

Phillips sells all types of popcorn from his store at 37th Street and Harvard Avenue, and from his website.

In just four years, his business has, well, exploded. Last year, he began selling popcorn at Tulsa Drillers baseball games. That added to his other outlets such as Expo Square and the Circle Cinema.

The new cost for doing business in Tulsa.

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His Premier Popcorn brand is just one of thousands of products made in the state that are enjoying success.

April is "Made in Oklahoma" month, which is designed to put a spotlight on entrepreneurs like Phillips.

"Starting a business here has been just fantastic," he said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

Phillips said he got lots of help from Oklahoma State University's Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center, as well as the state Department of Agriculture's Made in Oklahoma program.

OSU's FAPC division was particularly helpful with teaching him how to convert recipes developed at home to mass-quantity batches.

"They have a chef and a commercial kitchen, and he helped us out quite a bit," Phillips said.

Phillips continues to work with OSU as he develops new Premier Popcorn products. Most recently, he had FAPC tweak the recipe for "Tom's Caramel," which is popcorn coated with dark brown sugar and molasses.

Other flavors offered by Premier Popcorn include jalapeno cheddar, creamy dill, blueberry, birthday cake, cheesecake and peanut butter chocolate.

Taking a small test run of flavored popcorn and converting it to production by the bucket requires more than just straight multiplication of ingredients. OSU taught him that, Phillips said, as well as how to adjust for changes in humidity.

The state's Made in Oklahoma program, meanwhile, has aided him in marketing.

As a result, Premier Popcorn grew 50 percent in 2013. Phillips now has one full-time and one part-time employee. Expansion to Oklahoma City is next.

Phillips said he would recommend that other Oklahomans try running their own business.

"If you have a dream or vision, go for it," he said. "I think you'll find that other people will want to share that dream and embrace it."

Indeed, many small business owners are discovering that Oklahoma is an ideal place in which to launch their ideas.

The Made in Oklahoma Coalition says its 40 members employ more than 25,000 people and produce $3.5 billion in revenue. About 85 percent of those sales are out of state, said Kerry Burrick, MIO's program manager.

"We're very proud of those exports, because they bring dollars back to Oklahoma," she said.

Coalition members usually start by working with OSU and the state Department of Agriculture's similarly named Made in Oklahoma program. Once a business gets going and has distribution for its products, it can join the MIO Coalition.

Coalition members pay an annual fee. In return, they get help through marketing campaigns supported by retail advertisements, point-of-sale materials, billboards, radio commercials, social media, recipe contests, food service sales promotions, television segments and special appearances.

Burrick recommends that any entrepreneur with an idea start by attending OSU's "basic training" class.

The one-day class is held every other month in Stillwater. It is limited to about 25 people, and usually fills up. Cost is $175.

Experts offer details on product development, marketing, trademarking, finances and writing a business plan.

"Usually, by the end of the day, people will either say, 'Oh my gosh, starting a business takes a whole lot more than I thought,' or they will say, 'I can do this,' " said Andrea Graves, business planning and marketing specialist for FAPC.

About 10 percent of the program's graduates go on to found a business, she said. For the rest, the class answers key questions.

After the class, OSU staff will continue to work with companies one-on-one. Fees are charged for some services, but Graves said the school tries to adapt them to fit the budgets of startups.

Among the specialized services OSU offers, along with the kitchen, is a food scientist who currently is helping a wine business; a "tasting room" which uses OSU employees and students to try out products; and various experts in applied chemistry.

Products made by small businesses in Oklahoma run the gamut, from food to candles to leather goods to gift baskets. The MIO Coalition restricts its efforts to food items.

"Some entrepreneurs just want to get their product into a few speciality stores like Whole Foods, while others want to go more mass-market and be sold in Reasor's or Walmart," Burrick said.

Two of the most popular do-it-yourself products are barbecue sauce and salsa.

"I think it's our geographic location," Burrick said. "Everyone seems to have an old family recipe for those two things that they want to bring to market."

What OSU can do is show how to convert that recipe into a product that can be made by the gallon, while the MIO coalition can help get it placed in, say, Reasor's, in a way that will make it stand out among the dozens of competitors on the shelf.

So, even though it may seem that there is saturation in a market, there's always room for one more item —— if it's good.

"We encourage everyone to give their idea a try," Burrick said.


For more information

Made in Oklahoma program

Julie Fitzgerald, 405-522-5560

Made in Oklahoma Coalition

Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center

Oklahoma State University

Andrea Graves, 405-744-6071

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