Rudi Sinykin and his brother, Aaron, have a kernel of wisdom to share with those who feel they are on a soul-less, corporate-America fast track to nowhere: Get off. And be kind.
The latter, particularly, is consistent with the spirit of the season and the way the brothers operate their two businesses year-round.
In the seven years since creating Tempe-based Kettle Heroes, a kettle-popcorn business that seeks out everyday heroes to honor, as well as its next-door sister entity, Devoted Guardians, a medical home-care service, they’ve shown that success in business and having a heart as corporate citizens are not mutually exclusive.
It’s been a pleasant change from their big-time corporate paths.
“We both were getting kind of demotivated,” Rudi said.
Rudi had been a product manager at an international corporation that manufactures home-organization products. His brother worked at an international computer-chip manufacturing company.
They decided to team up. They quit their jobs and bought 13 national-chain sandwich shops around the Valley. They learned about the food industry, but they still felt empty.
“Even as franchisees, we didn’t have a lot of control, plus on the local level we weren’t supporting the local community as much as we wanted to,” Rudi said.
So they sold the shops and used the money to create Devoted Guardians and Kettle Heroes. The popcorn side started with a half-dozen food trucks that took them on a four-year journey to their brick-and-mortar store in Tempe, at 1705 W. Ruby Drive, Suite 107, across from IKEA.
The Sinykin brothers sent their fleet of trucks around to fall festivals at schools, to farmers markets, to Walmart parking lots and to Arizona Cardinals home games.
“I don’t know if it was fate or what, but the Basha family, Trey Basha, and his family were at Gilbert Farmers Market and happened to taste our product and really loved it,” Rudi said. “They asked if we could make packaged popcorn for the Bashas’ stores. We jumped on the opportunity, and that kind of changed our direction completely into more of a packaged consumer-goods company.”
Their kettle corn now also is sold in nearly all Fry’s locations throughout Arizona, and at Sprouts, Whole Foods and AJs.
Seeking a higher standard
Rudi, who handles everything from popping and packaging the corn to new-product development and marketing, is chief operations officer of Kettle Heroes. Aaron is chief executive officer of Devoted Guardians. The brothers have joint ownership in both ventures.
“Our core ethos was that we wanted to hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Rudi said. “We wanted to be giving back with everything we’re doing.
“We were trying to find something meaningful to us in our daily lives. We felt that with these businesses we would be able to give back in a greater way and make us feel good about doing something good in the community at the same time.”
Who are their “everyday heroes?”
“It’s the people who see themselves as part of a community or greater good,” Rudi said. “Life isn’t just about themselves, it’s what they can do to better humankind. It’s people who step forward and show what America can be like when people put the greater community before themselves.”
The Sinykin brothers, themselves, might fall into that category.
Devoted Guardians, which started nine months before Kettle Heroes, has 600 caregivers, CNAs and RNs in the field helping people live independent lives at home. They assist seniors with daily-living activities, such as bathing, changing clothes, meal prep, medicine reminders and transportation to appointments. They also assist disabled and quadriplegic people.
“It’s all designed to keep people home as long as possible, where they feel the safest and most secure, especially during COVID times,” Rudi said. “The pandemic has heightened the need. People see that going into an assisted-living facility is not always the best option for people most vulnerable.”
Philanthropy begins at home
The brothers’ spirit of service and philanthropy comes from their upbringing in Wisconsin, Rudi said.
“Our father, especially, was a very generous person,” Rudi said. “That kind of set the benchmark.”
That was reinforced on Rudi when he was in Madrid working on his MBA. He said he discovered “kind of a different mentality in Europe, where corporations are not just about profit, but also about corporate social responsibility and trying to support their community at large.”
“I think that kind of shapes my philosophy, as well,” he continued. “We want to make sure philanthropy is not just a secondary aspect of the business, it’s a driving part of doing more in the community versus just taking from the community.”
To make all of their good-doing work, though, their kettle popcorn has to be good.
Kettle Heroes serves it up in a multitude of flavors, ranging from Hatch Green Chile Cheddar, to Sea Salted Caramel, to Cinnamon Sugar, to Prickly Pear, among many. At their Tempe shop, custom-labeled popcorn, party boxes and gift tins also are sold.
“We try to use the best ingredients in everything we make,” Rudi said. “We want a great-tasting product but we also want it to be with clean ingredients that are going to be non-GMO-project verified, gluten-free certified, kosher and nut-free.
“We try to remove any dietary restrictions that would keep people from having a great-tasting snack, so it’s something they can give to their kids. I have two boys in elementary schools and there are so many restrictions on what can be brought to school. We wanted something moms and dads can feel comfortable that the kids can take to school and give to friends.”
That was just the beginning.
From the simple popping of a kernel of corn sprang charitable partnerships with the Pat Tillman Foundation, Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Phoenix Children’s Hospital and many fundraisers for schools and organizations.
“My brother was a student at Arizona State University at the same time as Pat Tillman,” Rudi said. “He went to football games and saw what an inspirational figure he was.
“So when we were thinking about trying to choose a charity to support, and there are so many out there that are deserving, we just felt that he represented a lot of the ideals that were important to us: being selfless and giving of himself. On all of our bags at grocery stores, we’re giving a portion of our proceeds to the Pat Tillman Foundation.”
In October, in support of breast-cancer awareness, Kettle Heroes had an online fund-raising sale and the brothers had a mammogram truck come onsite to offer services to women who otherwise wouldn’t have gone to a clinic to get a mammogram during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kettle Heroes’ one remaining food truck still goes to schools, where 50 percent of profits are donated.
“We’re privileged to be where we are at, especially in these times,” Rudi said. “It’s our team working hard to get us where we are. It’s an ongoing marathon. We keep taking steps to improve.
“Our message is one of appreciation to be able to operate when so many are less fortunate than we are right now.”
More information on Kettle Heroes: kettleheroes.com.
More information on Devoted Guardians: devotedguardians.com.