Popcorn shop is Community Spark

May 1, 2024

Gaylen’s Gourmet Popcorn earns award from Heartland Energy

Walking into Gaylen’s Gourmet Popcorn is a sensory delight. The warm, buttery aroma of freshly popped corn mingles with different sweet scents such as chocolate and caramel. 

The seemingly endless options of popcorn, confections and other goodies are sure to make your mouth water. The vibrant colors of the candy station will have you reminiscing on summer days spent with friends.

Meanwhile, rhythmic clicking provides a subtle soundtrack and draws your gaze upward to a model train circling the store. It passes a hand-painted mural as a backdrop–crafted by a local artist–featuring train depots from throughout the county.

The store provides the perfect mix of nostalgia and modern-day pleasures.

“We want your visit to Gaylen’s to be an enjoyable experience,” manager Tyler Backus emphasized. “It’s not just about the snacks; it’s about creating lasting memories.”

What began as a rural farm operation has become a cherished small business in downtown Madison, South Dakota. Their dedication to quality, creativity and customer service has earned widespread praise.

Gaylen’s Gourmet Popcorn is the 2024 recipient of the Community Spark Award by Heartland Energy. The award, presented in conjunction with National Small Business Week, recognizes outstanding small businesses in Heartland customer communities. 

Gaylen’s Gourmet Popcorn is the 2024 recipient of the Community Spark Award. From left to right: Heartland Director of Economic Development Casey Crabtree, Chief Communications Officer Ann Hyland, Gaylen’s owners and managers Gaylen, Shirley and Tyler Backus, Heartland Customer Relations Manager Kelly Dybahl, and Lake Area Improvement Corporation Executive Director Brooke Rollag.

Journey of flavor and growth

Founded by Gaylen and Shirley Backus, Gaylen’s Popcorn began as a passion project selling popcorn kernels at their farm east of Madison. Over time, the business evolved to include gourmet caramel corn, and eventually a wide array of both sweet and savory flavors. 

“Ultimately we decided to concentrate on making snacks and confections,” said Tyler who is also the son of Gaylen and Shirley.

This decision led to the need for a larger facility. The family sold their farm and kernel business and purchased a commercial building in the heart of Madison. 

The move from a rural farm operation to a downtown storefront was a pivotal moment in their journey. It was driven by the family’s desire to share their passion with a broader audience while staying close to their roots.

It symbolized a commitment to growth and community connection. 


Variety of delights

Gaylen’s boasts over 20 different popcorn flavors, ranging from classic cheddar to more innovative creations like Cranberry Crave and Buffalo Ranch. Customers can choose from popcorn bags, boxes and jumbo bags as well as popcorn balls. Seasonal flavors are also regularly introduced.

Beyond popcorn, they offer an extensive selection of gourmet treats. Among their specialties are varieties of fudge, chocolates and frosted nuts. 

In addition to their handcrafted confections, Gaylen’s proudly showcases other locally sourced and homemade products. From wine and beer to soups and sauces and more, the store provides customers with a true taste of South Dakota and the region.

These partnerships with other small businesses are at the heart of what makes Gaylen’s successful.

“We used to call vendors to ask to sell their products,” Gaylen noted. “It would usually take at least three calls to get them interested. Now, we have vendors calling us. We’ve shown we have the traffic and they want to be in our store.”

Customers can savor craft beer from Remedy Brewing Company in Sioux Falls, SD, indulge in award-winning Halogi Hot Sauce from White, SD, enjoy classic 1919 Root Beer from New Ulm, MN, and delight in SDSU Ice Cream.

One thing these four vendors have in common–they are all located in Heartland customer communities.

“It’s amazing to see so many successful small businesses blooming throughout our customer base,” said Heartland Director of Economic Development Casey Crabtree.  “Not only does Gaylen’s make and sell great products, they go a step further by offering items produced by other small, regional businesses, including those in other Heartland communities.”

The many varieties of popcorn adorns one wall in Gaylen’s store.
Craft beers from Remedy Brewing Company, brewed in Sioux Falls, SD, a Heartland customer community.
The Backus family works with entrepreneurs to feature locally sourced items.

Innovating tradition

The Backus family continually tries new ways to make their shop better and give their customers more to love. In 2023, they added a patio so customers could sip beverages and enjoy treats outside during warmer weather. The move not only increased foot traffic but also increased its charm.

To give customers a chance to sample products, they also host wine pairing events featuring different South Dakota wines paired with “a delectable duo.”

They’ve also embarked on a new endeavor by remodeling the building adjacent to the store, which once served as the local telephone company. While part of the building serves as office space, they are looking for creative ways to utilize the remaining space while preserving the historic charm.

The expansion also aims to enlarge their kitchen, paving the way for a potential dining experience. They are looking to expand their offerings with sandwiches and paninis for a lunchtime option. 

This bold step demonstrates their ability to adapt and embrace change as they strive to offer customers more than a sweet or salty snack.

The outdoor patio features a neon “Good Times” sign, which references some of Gaylen’s earlier packaging.

Celebrating excellence

Gaylen’s opened its shop in Madison in November of 2021. Since then, it has stood out as a “must-stop” destination for its dedication to crafting delicious treats, creativity and community involvement. 

The business is a popular catering choice for local graduations, weddings and events, offering a custom popcorn bar option and promo goodie bags. Gaylen’s also partners with local organizations for fundraising ventures.

Eric Hortness and Brooke Rollag, executive directors of the local Chamber of Commerce and economic development office, respectively, nominated the store for the Community Spark Award, applauding its positive influence on Madison.

“Gaylen’s draws people to our community with their delicious treats and their top-notch service keeps them coming back. They are a vibrant addition to our downtown and we are so very proud to have them here,” said Rollag.

Hortness noted Gaylen’s strong online presence, noting the store ships gift boxes all over the world. He also highlighted the novel ways in which they draw people to the area.

“Gaylen’s is inventive. Recently they hosted an open house during National Caramel Corn Day that brought people to Madison and to our downtown area specifically for that event. They are always looking for ways to increase their reach and it has a ripple effect that benefits other business in our community.”

Crabtree emphasized the importance of honoring businesses like Gaylen’s.

“Small businesses like Gaylen’s are the heart of our communities,” he said. “They represent the spirit of entrepreneurship and community engagement that we celebrate with the Community Spark Award.”


Community spirit

The journey of Gaylen’s Gourmet Popcorn is a testament to the power of determination. From a small farm operation to a thriving storefront, the Backus family’s commitment to excellence has fueled their success and endeared them to Madison residents.

As they continue to delight customers with delicious treats and a welcoming atmosphere, the store’s recognition with the Community Spark Award reaffirms its status as a local gem and a symbol of community spirit.

Tyler Backus manages the store and has exciting visions for future growth.
Gaylen’s fudge includes popular flavors Cherry Bing, Caramel Chocolate Peanut and Peanut Butter Chocolate.