ESTELL MANOR — For about 25 years, John and Lois Battistini made up what was probably the smallest manufacturing firm in southern New Jersey.

Battistini Foods made Italian pasta — tortellini, ravioli, gnocchi — in a small USDA-inspected factory John built behind their home here.

With just the two of them working and one part-time helper, they could produce 1,200 to 1,500 pounds of pasta products a day.

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Their pasta was distributed to many states east of the Mississippi, some under private labels and some under the Mrs. Battistini’s Gourmet Italian label.

The couple sold that business, which had been started by John Battistini’s grandmother in 1951, and Lois went to work as a secretary in an accounting office.

But John, especially, needed to do something else.

“I said, let’s not get into the food business again. I’m tired of dealing with the inspections,” Lois Battistini said.

“He said, ‘Guess what? I’m Italian! We’ve got to get into the food business again,’” she said. “I do enjoy it, meeting people, being out on the road, making people feel like they’re being taken care of.”

Thus was born Grannys Kettle Korn, an even smaller food manufacturer than Battistini Foods.

For about a decade, the business was built around an 80-quart stainless steel kettle the Battistinis take to fairs and festivals, where

they fire it up with propane and produce several flavors of popped kettle corn for immediate sale and consumption.

Then the pasta business they sold failed and they took back the little factory behind their house, Lois Battistini said.

They based Grannys Kettle Korn production and packaging in there — still taking the kettle to outdoor events in the region — and Lois retired from her job with Dickinson & Co., CPAs, in Buena, to focus full-time with her husband on the new food business.

Grannys Kettle Korn may be just a speck in the local food manufacturing industry compared to, say, General Mills’ Progresso facility in Vineland, which employees 400.

The Battistinis make up only a half of one percent of the 402 workers in the rebounding food manufacturing industry in Atlantic County last year, according to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

But Grannys Kettle Korn, like its bigger brethren, has multiple outlets for its products, including retailers such as ShopRite Liquor and Bergamo’s Farm Market in Vineland, Lois Battistini said.

The Battistinis also sell it wholesale to fundraisers and some vendors who then resell it for charitable purposes and at various venues, she said.

Grannys Kettle Korn also sells online all flavors of its corn in bags and gift boxes, with packaging themed for holidays such as Halloween and Christmas, or events such as birthdays, weddings or baby showers, she said. Custom labels to commemorate an event are also available.

Also, like other food manufacturers, Grannys is feeling the pressure of rising ingredient prices, particularly for corn, where supplies have been greatly reduced by drought and the diversion of the crop to production of ethanol gasoline substitute.

“Corn went up $10 a bag to $33 a bag, and the price of canola oil has tripled,” Battistini said.

Her husband estimated the firm pops about 500 pounds of corn a month.

“Unfortunately, sometimes you have to raise prices,” she said. “We try to keep it about $4 a bag so people can at least enjoy some occasionally.”

Shipping, another important segment in manufacturing, represents a particular challenge for Grannys, whose sole product is best when freshest.

“Several people wanted us to use the Post Office, but I had trouble with them,” she said. “It kind of went around the world before they received it.”

So Grannys ships strictly by FedEx, and nearly all of the time the buyer gets the product the next day, she said.

“We only make what we need. Everything is popped to order and shipped out the day we pop it,” Battistini said. “Many times when we bring it to FedEx it’s still warm.”

As they did with pasta, the Battistinis came up with their own recipes — popping numerous experimental batches, giving kettle corn away in numbered packages so preferences could be tracked.

The result is six flavors: traditional kettle, spicy jalapeno, white cheddar, Apple Pie ala Korn, caramel corn, and versions with diabetic-friendly sweeteners.

USDA inspectors still check out the little factory, but not so often since it no longer handles meat.

The show season, now over, will begin again in April, she said, the first usually being the Atlantic County Utilities Authority’s popular Earth Day festival.

The focus now is on holiday-related sales and production, including red and green Christmas Corn and Halloween Blood Corn.

Battistini said they never considered fully retiring. “You have to do something, if only to try to pay the taxes.”

“Our game plan is to build up the business so we can actually make a few bucks and maybe we can take a vacation,” she said.

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