EPSOM, N.H. — Michele Holbrook’s cheery demeanor matches her gourmet popcorn shop, Michele’s Sweet Shoppe. She offers samples of a popcorn tossed in dark chocolate and coconut, then drizzled with white chocolate, or a confection of honey mesquite barbecue.
There seems to be popcorn everywhere. Next to the Burlington Mall food court, Heather Berlin generously shares samples from Corn & Co, where she is a co-owner: wasabi-flavored popcorn tossed with wasabi peas for extra heat, or, on the sweet side, s’mores, which is caramel popcorn mixed with chocolate, marshmallows, and cinnamon-toasted cereal.
Move over cupcake. Gourmet popcorn is the new hot item.
At least five specialty popcorn stores opened this year in Massachusetts and more are sprouting around the country. JM Curley downtown offers caramel popcorn with bacon as a snack, and Backbar in Somerville has spicy caramel popcorn. Gourmet popcorn has gained enough momentum to be declared among the top 10 trends in 2013 according to tracking firms Sterling-Rice Group in Colorado and the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade in New York. They see an increase in specialty popcorn from small businesses, farmers’ market vendors, and Internet purveyors. The cost for the treat varies by brand, from about $3.95 for 2½ cups of popcorn to $8.95 for five cups.
“It’s almost like granola, it has a lot of iterations,” says Louise Kramer of the NASFT. “We’re seeing beer popcorn made with stout, [one] with black truffle, and brands with Indian flavors.”
Anthony Sideri, whose father started New England Pretzel and Popcorn in Lawrence 30 years ago, traces the current trend to Garrett, a 63-year-old popcorn retailer in Chicago. The Sideris sell popcorn to Michele’s, Corn & Co, Fenway Park, and TD Garden. Garrett “is the famous one that has lines out the door every single day for their mix of cheddar and caramel popcorn,” Sideri says. “Now people are taking that idea and expanding. Sweet flavors like chocolates, caramels, and fruit, and all savory: cheddar, bacon, jalapeno. There’s endless potential.”
Popcorn has been around more than 5,000 years. Here, Native Americans were growing corn before the Colonists came. In the Great Depression, popcorn was sold at movie theaters as an affordable snack. “It worked for our culture at that time,” says Wendy Boersema Rappel of the Popcorn Board in Illinois. “The US has grown up on popcorn. Right now, there’s no generation living who didn’t grow up on popcorn.”
The rise of flavored popcorn is attributed to the current obsession for gourmet foods and healthier snacks. “Popcorn has a somewhat healthy halo around it; it’s seen as better than a bag of chips,” Kramer says. “Also, popcorn is fun, it’s comfort food.”
Rappel says popcorn is a low-cost food that’s “like a blank canvas.” And, she says, “You’re starting out with a whole grain, healthy base. It’s carte blanche for creativity. What’s key is that with popcorn you want to keep the crunch. Once you add liquids, you affect the crunch.”
There are two basic types of unpopped popcorn. Movie theatres generally sell butterfly popcorn, which expands vertically from the hull with “wings.” Mushroom pops from the bottom of the hull upward, into a tight ball. Sideri says mushroom popcorn is preferred for coatings because it’s tough and has less breakage when tumbled with ingredients.
Eric Bickernicks uses mushroom popcorn for his Velma’s Kettle Corn, based in Buzzards Bay. He has been making kettle corn since 2006 and sells it at farmers’ markets in Newton, Framingham, and Springfield. “Unlike flavored popcorn where you put the flavor in after the fact, with kettle corn the flavor is in the kettle,” says Bickernicks. Sugar and salt are mixed with oil in a large kettle that reaches heat as high as 400 degrees.
Bickernicks, who hopes to expand to more farmers’ markets, observes an increasing number of vendors buying kettle corn equipment. “It’s yummy and the profit margins are good,” he says. “The flip side is that making popcorn is a brutal thing if you’re doing it five days a week. It’s really physical. I’ve gotten heat stroke doing it in August.”
Like Bickernicks, Holbrook began her business in her basement with minimal equipment. Today she has three multi-gallon mixing tumblers and two drum popping machines. Her only full-time employee is her son, Jesse LaMontagne, a culinary school graduate with whom she crafts her 30 flavors.
Holbrook shuns preservatives, uses high-grade ingredients and discards up to one-quarter of all popcorn because of breakage. She has carted her popcorn to SoWa Market in the South End in the summer, to New Hampshire stores year-round, and distributed at this year’s Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards in Los Angeles. “There’s 110 percent of myself in this product,” says Holbrook. “I don’t have a secondary education, no business training. I had a vision. I would love to open a shop in the Burlington Mall but I don’t have the money for it now.”
Corn & Co has “a lot of money” behind it, says CEO Steven Berlin, a New York entrepreneur. It was 2½ years in the making. Partners include Berlin’s brother and sister-in-law — Robert, a chef, and Heather, who hails from Concord — and Jeff Casler, CEO of Second Time Around consignment shops. Corn & Co uses top shelf ingredients, two different bag pricing options, glassine or resealable brown bags, and clever graphics. The shop is styled as a whimsical modern apothecary and looks like it’s part of a franchise. That’s intentional.
“We’re looking to build a powerful brand and model,” Berlin says. “We want to create an experience that you’re having something truly amazing crafted by hand with care.”
Corn & Co calls itself “popcorn reborn” and is distinguished by the add-in options embraced by yogurt shops, with 16 flavors daily and more than 250 in the rotation. As well, Corn & Co is affiliated with pediatric cancer charity The Max Cure Foundation in New York. The popcorn company expects to open a second outlet in New England next spring and, ultimately, stores along the East Coast.
Gourmet popcorn’s future is booming. “It’s the new cupcake of the moment,” Kramer says. “It’s a question of whether popcorn is enough to hang a retail business on for the long term. As a popcorn retailer you have to keep it interesting and different.”
Michele’s Sweet Shoppe,
1724 Dover Road, Epsom, N.H., 603-736-4610, www.michelesweetshoppe.com
Corn & Co, Burlington Mall,
75 Middlesex Turnpike,
Burlington, 781-221-7100, www.cornandco.com
Velma’s Kettle Corn, At Newton Winter Market, Tuesday 1:30-
6 p.m., Hyde Community Center, 90 Lincoln St. Newton