It’s not every day that a new business starts up in Wadena, but one local family has created a business that’s capable of popping up anywhere, most anytime.

Canoe Paddle Kettle Corn out of Wadena is a mobile business that goes where the crowds are. So far that list has included regular visits to the Farmers Market, Fridays across from Tri-County Hospital, the Wadena County Fair, Deer Trails Day, Crazy Days in Wadena and more to come as the summer schedule of events continues to roll on.

The kettle corn business offers up bagged popcorn, popped on site over a 160-quart kettle. A propane flame heats the giant kettle, while the popcorn is stirred in corn oil, sugar and salt using an actual canoe paddle to stir the golden kernels into a delightful snack. Kernel-by-kernel, this business is starting to make an impact in the community.

The main operator of that kettle is Ryan Damlo, who typically gets help from his family, including wife April and children Cooper (10) and Kylie (7), in operating this business that started in June.

While you may see Ryan making the popcorn, you’ll often find the kids doing the selling, including counting back change for hungry customers. Part of the reason for starting the business stems from a desire to give his kids a job.

He remembers telling his son, “Cooper I’ve been working since the third grade, you’re almost in fifth grade, get a job buddy,” Damlo said laughing about the talk. The popcorn business has been a great introduction into handling money, treating customers well and working hard.

Ryan Damlo of Canoe Paddle Kettle Corn hands out a signature blend of kettle corn to a hungry customer Thursday during the Crazy Days in Wadena.
Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal
Ryan Damlo of Canoe Paddle Kettle Corn hands out a signature blend of kettle corn to a hungry customer Thursday during the Crazy Days in Wadena. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

Planning to pop

Ryan said his idea to start this business was little more than a joke at first. As executive director of the Tri-County Health Care Foundation, he is often found popping popcorn for various events at the hospital. He joked that a popcorn business was something he could retire on.

Meanwhile Damlo had just started to embark on a culture program at TCHC. The culture challenge led by Joe Tye, CEO of Values Coach, Inc. A simple quote within the curriculum defines much of the goal, “Be the one who inspires the many for a more positive experience at work.” He took that lesson beyond work and is using it in his everyday interactions with people.Through this project, Damlo was challenged to think of something he wanted to do, something that he would enjoy and could use to create a positive shift in the lives of others.

His mind focused on making kettle corn. He talked with his wife first, and asked her if a kettle corn business was doable.

She agreed, possibly thinking he would forget about the idea after a couple days.

But he insisted, “Honey, I think we can actually do this,” Damlo recalls saying to April.

He told his culture partner, Joel Beiswenger, that he would pursue the business and little by little he did. Part of the challenge is to keep your partner accountable by asking them how it’s going each day. So, Damlo found himself taking a notable step toward making it a reality each day. That was in February, and by June, the family was popping for the biggest events in the county.

Damlo’s upbringing working on his family’s Park Rapids resort gave him the ability to work at a young age. It was only natural that he hoped to find something for his own children to do all summer long. He’s able to teach the kids some lessons in working and they’re able to earn some cash, while going to all the area events.

While the business does make money, Damlo said the plan to start a business always included the goal of using the business to raise money for others. So while the family was making money during Crazy Days, plans for the colder months include making popcorn for others to sell and let them keep the money.

“Some of it is for us,” Damlo said. “But more importantly everything that we do as community members helps build Wadena up, and having another small business like this kind of helps.”

Damlo said he was challenged to do such a thing after speaking with local entrepreneur Lisa Leeseberg who often sells her pizzas at cost to student groups so they can sell the pizzas and use the profit towards school related activities.

Damlo recalls his Park Rapids community stepping up to help his family when an explosion destroyed a couple cabins at their resort and severely burned his father. He says because he was shown kindness, he hopes to be able to continue to give back as well.

“There will be days where there will be 8, 10, 12 hour days and it’s not even for us, it’s for others, but I’m trying to teach the kids that that’s important,” Damlo said.

“Somebody repaid it forward for us years ago, now it’s our turn,” Damlo said. “That’s really, for me, where it all started.”

Ryan Damlo talks about how he pops the popcorn and drops it into a holding area where the old maids all fall through and out of the mix.
Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal
Ryan Damlo talks about how he pops the popcorn and drops it into a holding area where the old maids all fall through and out of the mix. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

Popcorn and pickles

Working towards starting a business was just a small part of the culture challenge at Damlo’s workplace. The bigger picture is creating a change in the workplace and beyond. A change that looks to stamp out negativity and make positivity flourish. That’s a shift he’s been spreading into his other areas of business.

“It’s that culture shift that we need to make as a community, don’t be a sour pickle,” Damlo said.

Damlo has his hands in more than popcorn and the hospital foundation. Damlo was elected to the Wadena-Deer Creek School Board in 2018, he serves on the Wadena Housing and Redevelopment Authority, he’s an assistant Cub Scout master, and is an active member of the Wadena Lions. His wife, April, is also active in Wave and on the WDC PTO, in addition to working for Wadena County.

After becoming a leader in the culture project at TCHC, and seeing the impact it can have, he’s hoping to change the narrative for other businesses, organizations and the community as a whole. While there was a time he may have listened to people talking poorly of the community of Wadena, he’s ready to stand up and proudly share his support of the town, as one of many people in the business of striving for a better community.

Piggyback popcorn

As if there isn’t enough reasons to pursue the popcorn business, Damlo is now working with other businesses in future flavor combinations. It's an effort to support and promote those businesses and make some outstanding popcorn. Maybe you tried birthday cake or s’mores kettle corn. What do you get when you mix a local maple syrup, The BBQ Smokehouse and Canoe Paddle Kettle Corn? Maple bacon kettle corn -- the next flavor of the month.