Business has been poppin’ this year for one of Nodak Electric Cooperative’s commercial members in Devils Lake. Farm-family-owned CoJACK Snack & Pack is one part bean processing and packaging company and one part Colorado Jack popcorn plant – but it’s 100% on the grow.
“Sales have been going great,” said Chace Austvold, head of CoJACK marketing and sales and daughter of CoJACK founder Brian Engstrom.
Colorado Jack popcorn can be found regionally in stores like Hornbacher’s and Simonson Station Stores, but it has recently expanded to even more retailers across the country, including all Hy-Vee gas stations. Austvold is especially excited about a new partnership with the Fargodome, which is now selling their raw and packaged popcorn. “If you make it to a Bison game or Fargodome event, be on the lookout for a custom Colorado Jack popcorn cart!” she said.
Popcorn is just one piece of the multifaceted undertaking that is CoJACK Snack & Pack. The company also 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,” Engstrom 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.”
Since purchasing the 120,000-square-foot CoJACK facility in March 2019, the family has continued to push forward in terms of efficiency and production. Engstrom is currently setting up equipment for an additional packaging and production line on the Colorado Jack side of the building that will allow them to produce their popular Caramel popcorn at the same time as their savory varieties (such as Sea Salt & Butter and White Cheddar & Jalapeño).
All that production takes power. Before the conveyors started rolling in 2019, Engstrom 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 packaging lines, heat lamps and even forklifts powered with electricity, CoJACK’s co-op had a role to play in the venture.
“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.”
Companies like CoJACK are a growing necessity for North Dakota communities like Devils Lake. Not only is the business boosting the ag industry and supplying great jobs, but it’s diversifying the local economy and bringing in money from outside of the state. In 2020, 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 only 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. Austvold says over the course of 2021, they have doubled the amount of fundraisers supported compared to the previous year. She adds that the opportunity isn’t simply for students – any organization wanting to raise money can participate.
Throughout October, Colorado Jack offered a special popcorn pack to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month and support breast cancer research. Fifty percent of the proceeds of the POP into Action packs will be donated to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
“Our organization, as well as many others, have been affected by breast cancer in some way. We wanted to show support to our employees and others when creating this pack,” Austvold said. “Our company is built on the principles of giving back. We make it a priority in our day-to-day businesses. For me, it’s about creating awareness to the needs in the community and encouraging others to help give back in any way possible.”
CoJACK Snack & Pack also works closely with Lake Region Corporation (LRC), a nonprofit community-based organization dedicated to providing vocational, residential and support services for those with disabilities. CoJACK currently has three lucky LRC assistants who help keep the plant clean, and they soon plan to have LRC help with processing and packaging orders from the four online channels they use to sell Colorado Jack popcorn: the online store, Amazon, HSN and Feast and Field.
The family received the LRC Partner of the Year award this year, and they can’t wait to see that partnership grow along with the company.
“We are shipping 15-20 small orders a day, and that number does not include our small-case orders for customers that we drop ship to,” Austvold explained. “So we are busy and definitely need the help!”