MONTEVIDEO, Minn. — Erich and Jayme Winter were shocked and not sure what to do when the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to close the doors on their three-screen theater in Montevideo, Minnesota, just two years after buying it.
“Our initial reaction was shock. What are we going to do?” said Jayme Winter.
What they did is now being held up as an example for small businesses across the state. The Winters were part of a Small Business Administration roundtable on Sept. 16 that focused on how three different small businesses coped with the pandemic.
Jayme and Erich Winter took on the pandemic with the motto: “When life throws you kernels, make popcorn.”
And make popcorn they did: Their response to the pandemic included adding a commercial kitchen to make and package popcorn, which they hope to sell in convenience and grocery stores as well as at the Millennium Theater. They produce more than 60 flavored varieties today, as well as seasonal offerings.
They had purchased the theater in Montevideo’s Southtown Plaza in 2017, and remodeled and upgraded it. They said they were just gaining traction in 2019. Just a few months into 2020, the government ordered theaters closed.
It was Erich who suggested they continue to sell popcorn on weekends. They opened a popcorn telephone line and took orders. They sold 50 bags on the first Friday night, delivering each to waiting cars outside the front door.
The next day, Erich arrived at the theater at 4 p.m. and the phone was already ringing. He soon put in a desperate call for help to Jayme and sons, now ages 17 and 14, to give him a hand as there were orders for 170 bags.
It kept growing from there, as the community rallied to support their business, said the Winters. “This community that we live in, Montevideo, we support each other. We reach out when someone needs help. We help them. The whole town has done that,’’ Erich said.
As summer approached and the COVID-19 restrictions remained, the Winters decided to do more than sell popcorn. Erich and his father, Dan, rigged an outdoor screen and, with city approval, turned their parking lot into a pop-up drive-in theater.
The challenge was finding movies. Hollywood was not releasing new movies, and some companies, such as Disney, would not allow the showing of previously released movies. They showed what they could, from films based on the Harry Potter novels to "Jurassic Park" and "Ghostbusters," knowing their customers had probably seen them all. Still, they had as many as 60 cars on some nights, with everyone safely distanced and enjoying the theater’s concessions outdoors, they said.
It’s when they also began expanding their popcorn line. Erich started it by producing caramel popcorn which he packed for sale. They soon began selling gift packages of their popcorn for holidays.
Government support was very important for the business. A state grant to movie theaters allowed them to install the commercial kitchen equipment to make the wide variety of flavored popcorn they now sell.
The theater also obtained a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which allowed them to bring back employees. The theater had employed 12 people, two adults and 10 teenagers, prior to the pandemic.
Not all chose to come back, but keeping connected to those who did was very important, said Jayme.
The theater is operated on the basis that customers are guests. “You treat them like they are coming into their home,” said Jayme. Keeping employees who appreciate customers as guests is so important, she said.
The pandemic showed them how much they enjoy the interaction with customers. The absence of that contact proved very hard, said Erich.
The experience changed their perspective and plans. In 2019, they were thinking about expansion and possibly acquiring a second theater. Now they remain focused on the Millennium Theater and desire to make it the best, along with marketing their popcorn outside the theater.
Just this past week, they installed new luxury recliner chairs for screen number two. They now offer luxury seating for two of the three screens.
The moderator for the SBA roundtable was Harry Miller, who volunteers with a program known as SCORE in the Twin Cities to provide mentoring to small business owners. He called their story a “remarkable” one for the resilience and ability to pivot the business in response to challenges.
He asked Erich and Jayme what lessons they learned from it all. “Don’t give up,” said Erich, explaining how they had put all they had into the business. “If you love doing it, it will work out. It will always work out. Every time we tried to do something, the support was there.”
Added Jayme, who credited Erich with coming up with many of the ideas for responding to the pandemic: “Don’t be afraid to try new things. Don’t be afraid to text your wife in the middle of the night with a crazy idea. It’s OK to try those crazy ideas sometime.”