Elgin popcorn shop Mama Lee's honored by city council
An Elgin-based popcorn store with two more locations in the Chicago area was recognized by the city council as a successful black-owned business as part of Black History Month celebrations.
Chris Sumner launched Mama Lee's Gourmet Popcorn in July 2015 at 20 S. Spring Street in downtown Elgin. He opened a second location in late 2016 inside Spring Hill Mall in West Dundee, and a third one in August at Ford City Mall in Chicago.
Sumner and his wife, Ashley, were recognized Wednesday with a proclamation read by Councilwoman Tish Powell, and Sumner's "Popcorn Song" video was played on a big screen in the council chambers.
"I'm so proud of Chris and Ashley," Powell said.
Sumner, who grew up in Elgin and gets called "Mr. Popcorn," said, "As a black-owned business, hands down I'm proud of the success we've been having."
Ashley Sumner, who works in the city's 311 Contact Center, credited her husband's vision and determination, describing how he started making popcorn flavors at home while working full time at the Fisher Nuts factory in Elgin. They live in Poplar Grove and have two children.
"I'm proud of him as a black man, just for following his dreams," she said.
Mama Lee's is named after Sumner's mother, Leticia, who first taught him how to make caramel popcorn. The store's website lists 47 flavors including the "Elgin mix," white cheddar with a hint of garlic mixed with sweet caramel, and the "EPD mix," short for Elgin Police Department, a mix of cheddar bacon and creamy caramel.
Sumner said he's been focusing on expanding his corporate clientele. His popcorn is sold at Holiday Inn locations in Elgin and Riverwoods, Chicago Marriott Suites in Downers Grove, the Hampton Inn in Elgin and Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, he said.
He's also been approached by a couple of malls to open a fourth location, just as Ford City Mall reached out to him last year, he said.
"My whole goal now at this point is to kind of build it up and create systems to make Mama Lee's a franchise," he said. "Especially being in Chicago, it's starting to be more evident that this is possible."
Sumner said he employs four part-time workers and gets help from his extended family, including relatives in Chicago. All the popcorn is made at the Elgin store. "I'm always delivering popcorn, that's my new role," he said, laughing.
Sumner said he also really enjoys talking to students about what it's like to be an entrepreneur, and is working on a children's book about -- what else? -- making popcorn and following your dreams.
The Sumners credited the help of the community, the city council, the Downtown Neighborhood Association of Elgin, the Elgin Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce.
"Mama Lee belongs to the community," Sumner said. "Everyone should be proud."