Wafting through the air on 31st St. near the corner of Atlantic Avenue, stronger than the smell of the ocean and more enchanting than the aroma of suntan lotion, is the scent of freshly popped popcorn.
That memorable smell draws people into Jody’s—the gourmet popcorn shop that’s become a destination for many tourists and locals—who buy a bag of caramel or chocolate drizzle corn to eat on the spot, and a bag, or two, or 10, to take home.
Which is just how Jody Wagner, the store’s namesake and president, intended it when she and her husband, Alan, opened their business in 2005. What Wagner didn’t intend was making Jody’s Popcorn a career—which it has become for her.
“I thought it was just going to be this little, simple side business,” says Wagner, who, in addition to running the company, is the secretary of the Tidewater Jewish Foundation, a past president of Jewish Family Service of Tidewater, and a past vice-president of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, in addition to numerous other board and volunteer positions.
Jody’s has proven to be more complicated, time consuming, and, Wagner emphasizes, “real” then the cute little grab and go popcorn shop retail store the Wagners initially envisioned.
Most days, Jody Wagner puts in about 10 hours at Jody’s Popcorn headquarters, an 8,000-square-foot Kosher-certified, gluten- free facility off of Birdneck Rd. She also attends industry trade shows throughout the year. (Alan Wagner is busy, too; he’s a board certified ophthalmologist specializing in vitreoretinal surgery and founder of the Wagner Macula & Retina Center).
Working in a building where popcorn crumbs are a given and equipment repair is never ending, Jody Wagner is worlds away from where she thought she’d be at this point in her life, and from her past careers and workplace environments.
From 1980 through 2002, Wagner worked as a successful lawyer, becoming a partner specializing in securities, corporate and banking law at Kaufman and Canoles in Norfolk.
“I never anticipated leaving the legal field,” Wagner says. “That wasn’t something I planned on doing, or tried to do. I loved practicing with my partners. It was a great firm, it was just that my direction went a little different then expected.”
In 2002, Wagner accepted an appointment from Governor Mark Warner to become Virginia’s State Treasurer. Her tenure in Richmond continued in 2006, when Governor Tim Kaine chose her to be Virginia’s Secretary of Finance.
Wagner resigned her Finance position in 2008 to enter politics. She won the run-off in the Democratic primaries to become the party’s Lt. Governor candidate, and spent a year on the campaign trail. While she didn’t win the election, she did earn respect and recognition from voters throughout Virginia and beyond—and ironically, she says, not necessarily for her highly regarded legal and government jobs.
“The funniest thing is, when I ran for Lt. Governor, the experience quotient was that I’d been Secretary of Finance under Kaine and State Treasurer under Warner. But some people I’d meet seemed to be sort of disinterested,” says Wagner.
“Then I’d say, ‘And I run a gourmet popcorn company,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, really!’ In fact, I had volunteers who were getting petitions signed to get me on the ballot, and this one guy in Northern Virginia told me, ‘Truthfully, people didn’t really care about signing until I told them you had a gourmet popcorn company.’ It was then that I became real to them,” says Wagner.
Wagner has proven her abilities to manage multiple responsibilities and career commitments at the same time. Jody’s 31st St. retail store opened during her appointments in Richmond, the business moved into its headquarters and manufacturing plant during her campaign year, and she and Alan are the parents of four very accomplished children: Rachael, Jason, Lizzie and Max.
Wagner says she has learned things she never really thought about before, or didn’t need to know, such as what a pallet is, or that Jody’s kernels come from non- GMO corn grown in the Midwest, or learning—through error—the importance of FedEx and UPS’ dimensional weight rules.
She dresses casually for work, lauds her dedicated management staff and the 10 or so fulltime employees who operate the giant popcorn popper, conveyor belts, caramelizing vat, bagging machine, labels, and assorted bags of popcorn that share building space with her, and Wagner is quite happy and proud to discuss them all.
The newly discovered realities and education of being a small business owner are both appealing and quite challenging to Wagner. They provide her with the impetus to increase the wholesale side of the business—in the gift, private label foods and fundraising markets—while still serving customers at the retail store.
“I thought about practicing law again after the Lt. Governor campaign ended. When I was doing securities law, the thing I liked the best was that you would get really immersed in a customer’s business, for a three month or six month period, where you knew so much about it…but then, when the deal was over, I would go back to my office and I’d move on to the next deal, so I never felt like I was building something real—something tangible,” Wagner says.
“The difference here is, you’re really building a going concern and delivering something that people actually touch and feel,” she says. “I like being able to watch the development and the growth and feel like we’re creating memories. We’ve had people that email us who get engaged and who say, ‘I did it over a bag of Jody’s popcorn while we were watching such and such a movie,’ and it’s those kind of things that make me feel like I’m affecting lives in a positive way.
“I wouldn’t change any of the time that I spent in state government. I really learned a lot there and I really enjoyed it—in law, you’re constantly learning, too, but here, it’s a different kind of learning.
“An example of the biggest difference, is when you’re with Kaufman and Canoles, or when you’re with state government, if your computer breaks, you call the IT department and they get right on it. And within a very short period of time, you either have a new computer or they fixed it.
“Here, when a computer breaks, someone comes in and says, ‘Jody, our computer broke. What are you going to do about it?’ You suddenly realize all of the little things that businesses have to deal with. It is a completely different perspective. You have a much deeper appreciation for the frustrations that the average businessman goes through, not the big businessman but the smaller businessman. And that makes me so much more realistic.”
by Laine Mednick Rutherford