HIBBING — This time of year, there is a white and red pop-up stand that appears several days a week in an empty lot near the corner of First Avenue and 25th Street in Hibbing. Bags of cotton candy dangle from it’s window while a vast display of colorful syrups boasting names like “Bahama Mama” and “Blueberry Cheesecake” provide a rainbow backdrop.
Approaching the stand, a pleasant smell wafts into the air reminiscent of summer carnivals. That’s when it comes into view — clear bags that are two feet long and packed full of the good stuff: old fashioned kettle corn. Every popped kernel is shelled in a sugary glaze laden with grains of salt that creates a satisfying crunch. Maybe it’s because Dave Capknoli pops every bag fresh the same day, or maybe it’s the recipe he’s been perfecting for more than a decade.
“There’s nothing made ahead of time for the kettle corn. They’re as fresh as fresh can be,” Capknoli, owner of Cappy’s Kettle Corn, said this week as he pointed to the bags on the stainless steel counter inside his concession stand. “The cheddar [corn] I make in the morning before I come here, and the caramel [corn] I make on the weekend.”
The Hibbing native opened Cappy’s in 2008 after several back injuries brought an early end to his 20 year career as a mechanic. As a single father with limited daycare options, Capknoli needed an income and the freedom necessary to care full-time for his then six-year-old son. The “serial entrepreneur” tried several different avenues, including a woodworking business, which he operated out of his garage handcrafting adirondack chairs and grand Colombian clocks adorned with intricate scrollwork. Despite his dedication and know-how, his creations simply weren’t paying the bills.
“I’m sitting at the Land of the Loon festival on my nice adirondack chair and people are sitting on the chairs, calling them beautiful and asking how much they where and I’m giving them the spiel and not selling a thing,” he recalled. “And I’m watching, thinking, ‘Look at that guy over there selling that kettle corn. The line is a mile long.’ It was slow but he was making money.”
Capknoli continued attending festivals that summer and kept noticing the same thing: the kettle corn stand was always busy. That’s when he decided to post on eBay every piece of woodworking equipment he owned— from jointers to planers. Soon enough, a cabinet maker from Milwaukee, Wis., arrived and bought it all. Capknoli took every penny from that sale and invested it into his very first kettle corn pot.
“I bought this big pot, brought it into the garage and tried to do my first round of kettle corn,” Capknoli said. “I tried a couple rounds, and I had so much smoke billowing into the garage, people were running in, ready to call the fire department.” Throwing up his hands, he lets out a hearty laugh. “I burnt the crap out of it! I was the worst. Nice start to my career as a kettle corn person.”
However, Capknoli slowly got the hang of it, tweaking the recipe as he went. He then purchased a tent and began signing up for events. The weekends were busy with craft shows and Farmers Markets. There were struggles along the way, but Capknoli kept after it.
On the recommendation of an employee at a local fair, he purchased a cotton candy machine and while that increased his customer base, he needed something extra to draw people in. Especially on the hot days.
“That’s when the Hawaiian Shaved Ice deal came into play,” Capknoli said, adding that he decided to fly to Hawaii and study with a man named Mr. Matsumoto who owns a shaved ice business in Haleiwa.
Capknoli insists anyone can buy a shaved ice machine, but there’s a finesse required to make it come out “the right way.” That finesse is one he’s mastered and the customers seem to notice, he said, as it brings them back again and again. Well, that and the fact he has more than 50 flavors, including a Harry Potter inspired “Butterbeer” concoction. And he’s fully on board to mix up new flavors, like “Tiger’s Blood” and anything else customers can dream up.
“Working for the man, I always had to be somewhere and I couldn’t just go because of daycare,” he said, thinking back to the early days. “I’m a single father, no mother in the picture, and it could be a struggle. This way I could freewheel.”
Cappy’s operates year round. From April to October he’s either parked on Tuesdays and Thursdays off First Avenue in Hibbing or at area festivals and events. During the winter, he sticks to indoor craft sales, selling his specialty caramels and homemade biscotti— which he’ll confidently tell you is the best around and comes with an avid fan base to prove it.
While the money isn’t much to speak of, he says he makes it by. And his favorite aspect besides the freedom?
“The people,” he said with a grin. “I just love people. It’s awesome just to sit here because you meet all kinds. I have fun with it.”
Capknoli will be headed to Bigfork Wilderness Days this weekend. To keep up to date with where Capknoli will be parked next, follow his Facebook page at “Cappy’s Kettle Corn.”