One summer day back in 2012, a pregnant Becky Bil of Kalamazoo had no inkling that a trip with her kids — she and husband, Rick, have nine ranging in age from 7 to 21 — to the strawberry patch would launch a family business.
They picked 27 pounds that day, and when Rick, who is a parts manager at Galesburg Ford, arrived home from work, Becky says, he whipped up a batch of jam from the berries. They passed the jam out as gifts to family and friends, which started a commotion.
“They’re like, ‘You should really make this and sell it!’” Becky says. “I said, ‘Well, what’s the market for that?’”
Continued entreaties and encouragement propelled the Bils to gather a variety of fresh fruits and make different flavors of jams and jellies that summer. They produced traditional jams like peach, strawberry and strawberry rhubarb as well as some unique flavors such as peach pie and apple pie. As a test run, Becky says, they took their products to sell at small local farmers’ markets in Richland and Plainwell and at the Douglass Community Center.
“It was easier to get into a small market,” she explains. “It was not a huge investment.”
Bilberry Jams and Jellies took off, and by 2013 they were selling their wares at the Kalamazoo Farmers’ Market. In the meantime, the Bils created 80 different flavors of jams and jellies.
“We keep anywhere between 40 and 60 (flavors) on the table (at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market),” she says.
Bilberry’s top sellers remain strawberry, red raspberry and strawberry rhubarb jams, which they always have on hand. The Bils dream up special creations for holidays, such as chocolate cherry and chocolate raspberry jams for Valentine’s Day and beer jelly made with Guinness or Bell’s Oberon for Father’s Day. They also make seasonal flavors like elderberry jelly.
“That, we can only get a little bit,” Becky explains, because of a limited supply of elderberries. “So when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Inspiration for these creative concoctions comes from different sources. Take the peach pie jam. While making apple pie jam, Becky says, her brother mentioned that his wife’s grandmother used to make peach pie jam. Other times, yogurt flavors spur creativity, such as Bilberry’s Strawberry Vanilla and Orange Creamsicle jams.
“People love things when we put vanilla in them,” Becky says, noting they use real vanilla beans in both of those jams.
For the past five years, the Bils sold Bilberry Jams and Jellies under the Michigan Cottage Food Law, which allowed them to create the jams in their home kitchen. As the Bils’ business grew, Becky says, they sought an opportunity to work in a commercial kitchen, which would allow them to expand into more markets, including shipping their products. When the opportunity finally arrived, it came with another flavorful commodity: popcorn.
Opportunity pops up
Through the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, the Bils became acquainted with Teresa and Steven La Fountain, who owned Pop City Popcorn, in downtown Kalamazoo. In 2016, Rick discovered an interesting post on Craigslist — a business for sale that sounded like Pop City Popcorn. It also had the commercial kitchen that the Bils were seeking. It was, and the Bils were interested. The La Fountains decided to hold off selling for a year and it took a bit to hammer out the details of the sale, but the Bils officially became Pop City Popcorn’s new owners in March of this year.
“They were phenomenal,” Becky says of the La Fountains. “They worked with us for a month. We came and learned how to do all the (popcorn) recipes, and then they worked with us two weeks after we took over. They’re only a phone call away if we have questions. They worked hard to get this off the ground, and they wanted to see it remain successful. I really appreciated that.”
In the 1,700-square-foot establishment at 346 S. Kalamazoo Mall, the Bils sell popcorn varieties such as butter rum caramel corn, cheddar, white cheddar and Becky’s personal favorite: parmesan garlic. She also enjoys chocolate peanut butter caramel corn, which she describes as “decadent.” As with the jams and jellies, which they also sell at the location, the popcorn provides the Bils with room for creative flavor pursuits.
“I think the possibilities on flavors could be endless for us,” she says. “We’ve been doing some different things with the flavors we’ve had on hand for St. Patrick’s Day. I did a Shamrocks & Shenanigans, where I put Lucky Charms in there. That sold so well.”
Pop City Popcorn’s top seller is The Kalamazoo Mall Mix, which Bil says is “Chicago style,” mixing caramel corn and cheddar cheese popcorn. They also have spicy flavors like Buffalo Wing and Angry Pickle. Pop City Popcorn has many corporate clients, including Bronson Methodist Hospital, Stryker Corp. and Western Michigan University. For WMU, the Bils make Bronco Mix, which is a blend of their black cherry, vanilla bean and caramel popcorns.
Both businesses are truly a family affair. The Bils’ 18-year-old daughter, Ruth, opens Pop City Popcorn each morning. Becky says the other kids assist with such things as cleaning and prepping fruit and labeling jars for Bilberry and help at Pop City, depending on their ages and abilities.
She offers advice for others wanting to launch a business: Test your product and discover your niche. Another tip: Don’t get discouraged. At those small farmers markets, she says, they initially sold a couple jars a day. It takes time for word to spread.
“You just have to keep showing up and doing what you’re doing,” Becky says. “Another possible pitfall is trying to do too much at once. Know your limits and what you’re capable of, and don’t try to go beyond that until you’re ready.”