Popping Up Everywhere: Gourmet popcorn is all the rage

Snack Corner

We all know the saying “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Well, I think that applies to the phenomenon that we are seeing with gourmet popcorn. It’s not just in theatres; it’s lining the grocery store shelves and popping up in gourmet popcorn stores. What is going on?

Last year, I thought that the popcorn at the grocery store, with a wide variety of flavors and of course sea salt, was still a fad. Maybe it was even reaching a peak. Well, I called that one wrong. In 2015, the number of popcorn brands at the grocery store has tripled, and gourmet popcorn shops are thriving and growing. If we dig into the reasons why, it seems to come down to novelty, taste and health.

The novelty of gourmet popcorn just simply has not worn out. The new flavors that continue to emerge keep the consumer guessing and trying them all. Barbeque and bacon are two flavors that seem to be the rage lately, and in the news. Whether it’s savory or sweet, no flavor seems to be off-limits, with both consumers and producers willing to experiment. There’s a wide range of flavors in the retail aisle and absolutely in the specialty stores.

Visiting the Sweets and Snacks Expo in Chicago this year, I was astounded at the number of companies who are producing gourmet popcorn. It was truly everywhere, and gift-wrapped for special occasions. Small companies to large ones, it is being produced at varying levels of operation. Garrett Popcorn in Chicago is a classic and has now been followed by other shops just like it around the country such as KuKuRuZa Popcorn out of Seattle, which hopes to be the next Starbucks. They have four locations in the U.S. and 12 global ones. Novelty shops have become the alternative to big-box shopping, and this type of store is a perfect example. The pendulum is always swinging back and forth.

Chocolate popcorn is no longer a novelty, it’s here to stay, and that is probably due to one thing: taste. It is so good. But the flavor profiles in general have improved, with customers demanding better product and retailers and manufacturers delivering. You can produce gourmet popcorn by starting with either a wet-pop or a dry-pop operation. They produce different flavor profiles, and different levels of oil content.

That does not necessarily translate into healthier for you, although the general public seems to be giving popcorn a thumb’s-up when it comes to acceptable snack foods. When compared with potato chips or cookies? This is absolutely true, it is healthier. It’s also a natural, whole grain. So when companies like “Skinny Pop” continue to grow their sales, it’s because they are able to be skinny in comparison. But if you take a look at some of their product calorie counts, you realize there is nothing skinny about it.

Caramel corn is a great example of this trend that is doing very well at select theatres. When you dry-pop mushroom corn and then coat it with a fresh, hot caramel mixture, you have a high-calorie product that started with a low-calorie staple. But it comes across as a tradeoff. This helps the consumer feel like he or she is actually compromising with the need for something sweet. Caramel corn products and hot operations in theatres are doing very well in some venues, as are cheese and chocolate.

Gourmet popcorn is not replacing our normal fare, but it has found a place for itself and we all know how difficult that is to accomplish at the concession stand. The pressure to offer healthier snacks continues to grow, especially with the looming menu-l abeling changes that affect all products. Consumers are becoming more aware of their calorie counts. Popcorn has the image of being healthy. If we add a few gourmet flavors that actually have fairly low calorie counts, we will win the image war.

Gourmet popcorn will not save us from the need to serve healthier food, but it’s a great way to spread out and offer options. The consumer is speaking loud and clear with the purchase of many retail brands and the support of specialty shops around the country. Theatres are great places to serve popcorn, and a little gourmet is only going to help us keep up our image as the place to be. It’s a fun snack and we can all tell ourselves that it’s a better choice than potato chips!

Send your comments to Anita Watts at anitaw@reactornet.com.