Popping into business
A North Dakota farm family has built a packaging company to support the local economy, give back to the community and create a generational legacy.
If a visitor steps into CoJACK Snack & Pack on just the right day, they’re hit first with the smell of freshly air-popped popcorn, and then enveloped in the sweet, buttery bliss of warm caramel. On one of those recent “just right” days, the packaging portion of the Devils Lake, N.D., facility was popping, flavoring and bagging thousands of pounds of caramel corn to be shipped out to distributors around the region.
“Our caramel is not the easiest to make. It took a while to get it right, but we figured it out,” said CoJACK founder and owner Brian Engstrom. “I do believe that we have the best popcorn. You can taste all of our other flavors, and I would say the same thing about them as the caramel – that they are the best.”
If this is the Wonka Chocolate Factory of popcorn, Brian is the Willy Wonka of the enterprise. But popcorn is just one piece of the multifaceted undertaking that is CoJACK Snack & Pack. The family business is one part Colorado Jack popcorn plant and one part bean processing and packaging.
Essentially, CoJACK takes raw product from local farmers, cleans it, packages it and ships it out on their behalf. The process creates a value-added ag ecosystem right in the heart of the nation’s top state for dry edible beans.
“Almost 100% of the pinto beans are from local farmers,” Brian explained as he walked through a warehouse stacked high and far with raw black beans, peas, lentils and more. “Some things are coming from western North Dakota and Montana. But within a couple hundred miles of here – that’s where nearly all of our product comes from.”
Bean there, done that
More than 20 years ago, Brian – an area farmer himself – started Engstrom Bean in Leeds, N.D. The company was and continues to be successful, but Brian had a bigger vision. His wife and CoJACK co-owner Kim Engstrom remembers sitting with Brian as the early plans for CoJACK formed.
At Engstrom Bean, they would ship processed beans to other facilities (often out of state) where they would be packaged. “He said, ‘You know, they’re making all the profit, and we’re getting the littlest bit of the whole pie,’” Kim recalled. “We had the ability to just do it all ourselves.”
The Engstroms partnered with Jack’s Bean in Colorado to get started in the world of bean packaging, which also pulled them into the world of popcorn processing (hence, the eventual CoJACK/Colorado Jack brand). But the distance created too many hurdles. By 2018, they were looking for a building to make the plan local. The leader of the Devils Lake Economic Development board showed them a hulking 120,000-square-foot facility.
“Kim and I did the tour on an October day, and I think it was the first of December that I ended up buying popcorn popping equipment at an auction,” Brian said with a laugh. “So then I was all in.”
They bought the building in March 2019 and CoJACK Snack & Pack began to fall into place. Brian called on Nodak Electric Cooperative to help him get transformer capacity back to the operation days of the past, when the building was used as a pasta factory. With much of the three automated processing and packaging lines, heat lamps and even forklifts powered with electricity, CoJACK’s co-op had a role to play in getting this venture rolling.
“Because we are in a very large agricultural-based area, I think it’s always great when our members can take a product from the farm to the shelf,” said Nodak engineering manager Steve Breidenbach. “The entrepreneurial efforts of the family are spectacular.”
Since its first package rolled off the line late in 2019, CoJACK has grown from 12 to 28 local employees, now sending out 10-20 truckloads of product to sites around the country. It has thrived even through the COVID-19 pandemic, which raised nationwide demand for edible beans. Looking forward, the company plans to modernize and target its marketing, ramp up its production lines and expand to even more distributors.
“Our goal is to be a company that has big gross sales every year,” Brian said. “We need to grow, and we need to have the sales to support this whole business.”
Companies like CoJACK are a growing necessity for North Dakota communities like Devils Lake. Not only is the business supplying great jobs, but it’s diversifying the local economy and bringing in money from outside of the state. On top of that, the Engstroms have multigenerational roots in the area – they won’t be taking their business elsewhere.
Last year, CoJACK was given the Governor’s Choice Award for Economic Development. “The whole project embodies rural economic development. So many times it’s out-of-state projects coming to North Dakota, taking our local economic development dollars, failing and then two years later, they’re gone,” said Brad Barth, executive director of Forward Devils Lake Corporation. “Here you have local owners that risked significant dollars, found other partners, and in less than a year have nearly 30 employees in a highly automated packaging facility – that’s a pretty cool thing.”
It’s not just the local community benefiting from CoJACK. The company is using its Colorado Jack popcorn as the center of a program to help organizations fundraise, from school groups to sports teams. The popcorn for those small-batch fundraiser orders are manually popped, flavored, packaged and shipped at Valley City’s Open Door Center, which provides residential and vocational services for those with disabilities.
The Engstroms’ son Cullen, who has autism, is employed at the Open Door Center, creating a perfect partnership opportunity.
“Not only are we helping organizations fundraise, but we are also able to employ individuals and give them a sense of purpose and pride, so we’re able to give back in that way, too,” said Chace Engstrom, Cullen’s sister and head of marketing and sales for CoJACK. “Cullen gets to be a part of that. He gets to help us make our product and be a part of the family business.”
As they sat together in the CoJACK office, Brian, Kim and Chace personified something as warm and sweet as their caramel recipe – a family energized by innovation, but connected by caring.
“It’s great to have the next generation sitting here, and so passionate about it,” Brian said as he glanced at Chace. “As a whole, it all goes back to family, the organization, building some legacy that our family can build on.”
Main image: CoJACK Snack & Pack founder Brian Engstrom and daughter Chace oversee the production, marketing and sales of Colorado Jack popcorn – just one element of the CoJACK enterprise.