Popcorn Power: Shelly Olesen Narrows in on 30 Years at C. Cretors & Company

Image provided by Shelly Olesen

It was during her job interview that Shelly Olesen knew she belonged at C. Cretors & Company. “I looked at the guy who was interviewing me and I said, ‘Okay, no, you have to hire me. This is the job for me,’” she recalls. “I knew it. It felt like home.” Nearly 30 years later, the job title’s changed, but the feeling of belonging hasn’t. Now Cretors’ VP Sales and Marketing, overseeing the company’s sales to theaters, bars, bowling alleys, and the like, the love and pride Olesen feels for her company, her industry, and (naturally) popcorn comes through loud and clear.

It’s not uncommon at Cretors, says Olesen, for people to stay as long as she has—but 30 years is nonetheless a small span compared to the history of the company, founded in the 1880s. Charles Cretors, so the company history goes, invented the popcorn machine back in 1893, inspired by watching street vendors pop their wares over an open fire. He wheeled his new machine over to Chicago’s World’s Fair later that year, but “nobody wanted to buy the product. They didn’t know what it was,” says Olesen. Undeterred, Cretors began giving the popcorn away for free; after ten minutes, the line was so long that could start to charge. “With that one invention, he not only gets credited with inventing the first popcorn machine,” says Olesen, but also with being a “catalyst that started the concession industry.”

From humble beginnings, Cretors expanded. Horse-drawn carts added products like chewing gum, beverages, and cigarettes to the standard peanuts and popcorn, bringing their wares to fairgrounds, baseball parks, and movie theaters. They (the concessions vendors, not the horses) weren’t allowed inside the theaters until the Depression, when theater-owners realized that selling food—and keeping a cut of the proceeds—could help them stay open through tough times. 

During World War II, Cretors took a government-mandated break from making popcorn machines for two years, shifting operations to parts for radios and machine guns to aid the war effort. In the ‘60s, Charles D. Cretors—current CEO and great-grandson of founder Charles—invented the industrial popcorn machine, allowing factories to make popcorn in large volume. And the ‘90s, when Olesen was new to the company, saw a boom in the construction of multiplexes, causing an increased need for popcorn machines among rapidly expanding chains. “It was a really busy time,” she modestly recalls. 

Since that first foray into the World’s Fair, Cretors has stayed in the family while expanding its product line to include non-popcorn concessions machines and, more recently, Covid-19 safety equipment. It’s also expanded across borders; per Olesen, international sales makes up approximately 60 percent of Cretors’ business.

Not that Olesen knew much of the company’s history when she went in for that first, fated interview. She studied Elementary Education and science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but since “teaching jobs were hard to come by” she moved to New York to work for a father’s friend doing sales. Two years later, she’d realized that sales was for her but New York wasn’t. She moved back to Chicago and got in touch with a placement agency; her only hard and fast criteria on the company she wanted to work for is that they be the “Cadillac” of their particular industry, selling a top-of-the-line product that she’d be proud to promote.

“‘What? How many can you sell?,” Olesen recalls thinking when she found out she’d be interviewing for a job selling popcorn machines. But the interview wasn’t even over when she was convinced that Cretors was the sort of place where she could settle down permanently. “Sometimes you have to follow your gut. I knew it was a good company. I knew [it had] family-owned values. Good Midwestern values… [The Cretors family] treat you like family. And they’re fair. I think people just want to be treated well, treated fairly. It’s not hard to work here.” (Cretors is a family business in more ways than one for Olesen, who met her future husband Martin Olesen on the job when he moved over from Denmark to work in international sales. Yes, they did serve popcorn at the wedding.)

Though selling popcorn machines seems a far jump from what Olesen initially wanted to do for a living, she finds that her educational background comes in handy. In fact, teaching others all that she’s learned about Cretors since that first interview has become one of her favorite parts of the job. “I like to share the way I feel about the company, the way I feel about the industry,” she says. The industry of making popcorn proved much more interesting and complex than Olesen first imagined, particularly given Cretors’ focus on engineering and inventing. As a company, it mixes the high-tech with the old-school, integrating new techniques and materials into their products to provide improved ROI for customers while at the same time remaining connected to their past. “We have a small museum here. We have popcorn machines that go back to the 1800s. And they still work!,” Olesen says.

For Olesen, sharing her knowledge of popcorn—the history, the maintenance practices to keep machines working longer, the percentage of moisture needed in every kernel to make it pop (“about 13.5 to 14%,” if you’re curious)—comes with learning from others, as well: customers, fellow vendors, and all the various other attendees of the 20-plus trade shows Olesen typically attends in a year. Her very first trade show was the NAC’s yearly expo in 1991; it’s an organization she “cant’ speak enough about.” 

“I think associations are important,” she adds—a fact that she believes people will come to feel more strongly in the wake of a global pandemic that’s brought trade shows to a near-standstill. “It’s not just meeting the customers. It’s meeting people like you. It’s meeting other vendors.” Getting “fresh perspectives” from people both inside and outside the industry—the NAC features members representing a variety of sports, recreation, and entertainment industries, not just movie theaters—allows Olesen to be more fluid in the way she operates. “If you’re not constantly reevaluating and learning from new stuff coming in,” she says, “then you’re missing out on a really good opportunity.” 

For now, the face-to-face meetings Olesen prizes so much have ground to a halt. But working for a company with such a deep history has made Olesen hopeful that the theater industry will be able to bounce back. “Something on the outside of your business often affects your business. We’ve been through the Spanish Flu, two World Wars, the Great Depression. The coming of the television—everybody thought movie theaters would go out of business,” she says. “We know that it was popcorn and soft drinks that kept the movie theaters open in the 1920s. And it’ll be popcorn and soft drinks that bring it back out” today.

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