August 01, 1988 12:00 PM

Business is popping for Wesley Friesen. In fact, corny as it may sound, he has set an entire industry on its ear.

Friesen, 36, has always liked popcorn. He has also always liked corn on the cob, which led him to the inevitable question: How come you can’t pop the corn while it’s still on the cob?

Having popped the question, he sought the answer. “It was one of those ideas that I knew, if I could do it, would work,” he says. “I could sell a million.”

Thus inspired, Friesen, of Venice, Fla., signed a contract with an Iowa farmer and got himself a load of hybrid corn (the kind that pops best in microwave ovens). He set up a five-person factory, took out a $20,000 bank loan and began thinking of ways to sell his product, Apart from its price ($3.95 for three ears), Corny Bro’s. Popcorn on the Cob looks pretty much like fresh corn packed in green produce trays with plastic wrap over the top. Fact is, nothing is done to the corn to make it poppable; it’s dried on the farm in a silo, packaged, and that’s about it.

Friesen, who previously worked as a marketing consultant, is high on the nutritional value of his product. “Popcorn is actually health food if you don’t put all that junk on it,” he says. “The corn has no salt, no artificial ingredients and no butter. It’s very low in calories and high in fiber. Eat it all day, and you don’t have to worry about it.” Friesen sometimes does eat it all day, when he goes to trade shows to pitch his product. (It isn’t available in supermarkets, just in gift, gourmet and novelty stores and through the Joan Cook Gift Catalogue.) On the road, he takes along a microwave (the best way to cook Corny Bro’s.) and just sits there, popping and munching. “After about three days,” he says, “people ask me, ‘How can you eat so much popcorn?’ ”

The answer is Friesen’s eye-popping balance sheet. Thanks in part to his promotions, sales of popcorn on the cob are expected to grow from zero to $1 million a year in the first 18 months. Of that, the popcorn’s papa expects to clear about $200,000.

If he lived in Kentucky, they’d make him an honorary kernel.

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