Pop Quiz: Industry experts ponder popcorn, moviegoers’ favorite treat

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Cinemas Features

It’s one of the oldest snack foods known; evidence of it has been found in a New Mexico cave dating to 3,600 B.C.

The Indians called it maize and its seeds come in four common varieties—sweet, dent, flint, and the one that, when heated to 180 degrees C, explodes into a crunchy puff.

At the 1893 Exposition in Chicago, inventor Charles Cretors introduced a mobile steam engine attached to a peanut cart that cooked the seeds in a mixture of butter and lard—and the result quickly gained popularity... except in movie theatres.

Exhibitors wanted to maintain an image of sophistication; they didn’t want the mess and aroma of this low-class snack. But the Great Depression—and sound movies—changed that. Ninety million people a week were going to the cinema. Street vendors set up carts to sell bags of this crunchy treat, right outside theatre doors.

Eventually, theatre owners saw the profit potential of cutting out the middleman—and began offering it themselves. World War II, with its sugar rationing, solidified its popularity.

Today, for many, it’s unthinkable to enjoy a movie without this crunchy snack we call popcorn. Here, four industry experts tell the rest of the story.

Michael Schum (Theatre Sales Manager, Gold Medal Products Co.): I usually order my popcorn large—with a soda and extra butter.

Andrew Cretors (President, C. Cretors and Company): I typically don’t add extra butter. I take it just with the oil it’s been popped in—and a little bit of salt. One of the functions of salt is that it opens up your taste buds; it helps those different flavors get unlocked.

Beau Bartoni (Director of U.S. Sales, Packaging Concepts): For me, extra salt and extra butter.

Rocky Franklin (Chief Operating Officer, Great Western Products):I like my popcorn in a great big bag with a whole bunch of buttery topping on top of it. I sometimes have to be careful to not hold the bag where it may leak through and get on my clothes because I have so much topping on the popcorn.

Bartoni: We’re the only bag manufacturer that produces a leak-proof popcorn bag. When people have butter on their popcorn, the butter stays in the bag—and on the popcorn.

Franklin: Popcorn has changed and improved through the years. American processors do not currently grow GMO [genetically modified organism] popcorn, but we have some excellent seed-producing companies that are always experimenting with hybrids and varieties using generally accepted agricultural practices.

Bartoni: Popcorn is a fun food. It fits well in a theatre environment and gives exhibitors and guests lots of options.

Cretors: A lot of people think back to their childhood days and popcorn is a part of their fond memories of going to the movies.

Schum: The sound of the popping, the aroma in the air—popcorn has become an integral part of the moviegoing experience. It’s popular because audiences love the taste and convenience—and exhibitors value the low costs and high profit potential.

Franklin: Way back in the day, the theatre was one of the only places where you could get popcorn, and over the years I think people came realize: There’s nothing like movie popcorn. People believe it’s better than popcorn they can get anywhere else.

Cretors: In terms of the seeds themselves, there’s not a lot of difference between popcorn for the home and popcorn sold in the theatre—but there are some subtle differences. 

Schum: One of the main differences is the type of oil and how much of it is used.

Franklin: Exhibitors want a specific type of oil, they want a specific type of kernel, they want a specific type of seasoning. Once they bring that level of science into the flavor profile, movie popcorn has a taste that’s hard to replicate.

Schum: Plus at home, you’re lacking all the elements of the theatre environment, so there’s a psychological factor to take into account as well.

Cretors: The key thing about popcorn is—in its un-popped form, it’s purchased by weight, but in its popped form, it’s sold by volume. So theatre owners want the most expansion they can get because it reduces their cost of goods.

Franklin: I’d say that the biggest improvement popcorn has made over the years is its ability to expand to greater sizes. But with too much expansion, it’s possible with some varieties that halfway through the bag, the customer may have a bunch of broken-up pieces and it makes it a little aggravating to sift through them. 

Cretors: You look at the old machines, the kettles themselves were very shallow—they were only maybe an inch or two deep—and I think that speaks to the fact that the corn back then wasn’t optimized for expansion. As sellers began using corn with greater expansion, the machines had to grow in diameter and depth to accommodate that.

Schum: There’s a science to making popcorn. You have to pay attention to the basics.

Franklin: With the changes in popcorn through the years, I think the connoisseur can pick up on a difference in what we refer to as “eatability.” It should be a little firm; it should give a little bit of a crunch. It shouldn’t create a problem with hulls. It should be warm. And it should be the same at the bottom of the bag as it was at the top, with few broken kernels and no “old maids”—un-popped kernels

Cretors: What we’re doing is providing a very repeatable environment for our customers to be able to sell a consistent product. Some theatres know their popcorn is sought after; it brings people to their venues and they can only provide that if they have a repeatable process.

Bartoni: Popcorn is like anything else—if a product’s well-produced, people will enjoy it.

Schum: Butterfly is the most common variety that everyone is used to seeing. It’s lighter and more easily broken. Mushroom is heartier and often used for caramel corn and cheese corn because it coats better and more consistently.

Cretors: Popcorn is a great platform for people to get creative with their tastes and ideas for different flavors.

Schum:Caramel corn and cheese corn have exploded in just the past few years.

Franklin: For a theatre to produce a caramel corn and a cheese corn appropriately, it’s going to require extra effort—extra personnel to prepare it, extra personnel to clean up after it.

Cretors: But I definitely think that caramel corn and cheese corn are worth the effort. They’re extra work, but they’re a gourmet-type product.

Schum: And the effort is minimal compared to the additional revenue it produces. Flavors have a higher perceived value with customers, so it makes the popcorn more marketable. They’re made with pre-popped corn, so if exhibitors have popcorn left over at the end of the day, it can be used to make caramel or cheese corn. And, because they’re coated, there’s a longer shelf life, which means additional sales opportunities.

Franklin: Companies like Popcornopolis and Popcorn Alley also produce those types of products where a theatre can buy it already prepared and sell it as an additional item, like they would a candy bar.

Schum: With movie popcorn, the idea is to balance the classic, nostalgic experience, yet offer something innovative and new. That’s why we’re seeing the influx of more theatres adding flavored popcorn to their menus.

Bartoni: They can have it with butter and salt, flavored with cheese or caramel, with sugar or covered in chocolate.

Franklin: Buttery topping is here to stay, but the Millennials are giving that a challenge with savory sprinkle-on flavored toppings. They like variety; they like speed. If they can get their popcorn, go over and flavor it up and head into the theatre, they’re good to go.

Schum: The flavor profiles are endless. From Sea Salt & Black Pepper to Lemon Pound Cake, Barbeque, Jalapeño. We recently introduced Mediterranean Herb. We even have a flavor modeled after Cincinnati Style Chili.

Franklin: There may be a dozen flavors available, but 80 percent of the volume may be in 20 percent of the offerings.

Schum: Exhibitors can personalize what works best for their audience.

Franklin: We’ve talked about toppings, but we haven’t touched on glazes. The glaze is added to the oil and popcorn while it’s still in the kettle, and as the popcorn pops it comes up through that mixture. Some kernels get more glaze than others. We’ve got a caramel glaze, a chocolate glaze, blue raspberry, grape and cherry; each is just enough of a coating to give popcorn the flavor.

Cretors: The keys to producing great popcorn are to have the right size machines that work reliably and produce a repeatable product. Aesthetics are also important—the machine has to be attractive in its environment—and it needs to be running often enough so people are aware of its presence.

Schum: With our larger machines, we have a switch that makes a half-batch, so theatres can manage last-minute crowds without making more product than they need. Plus, they still get the benefit of the aroma, sound and taste of freshly made popcorn that sparks impulse buys.

Bartoni: The smell is hugely important.

Franklin: Coconut oil, which is the most popular, allows more of the fresh popcorn aroma to come forward. Canola is a great oil to use, but it does impact the aroma of the popcorn; it’s a different aroma.

Schum: If someone tells us, I’m opening a new theatre, I have X number of seats and X number of screens, we’ll look at their size, location, theatre experience and other factors—and we can tell them what size equipment they need to optimize their popcorn sales. Some people have bought too small of a popcorn machine and they end up leaving a lot of profit on the table.

Cretors: We’ve always recognized that people were making a living with our equipment, but customers coming to the theatre aren’t concerned about the machine itself. They just want to know they’re getting a nice, hot, fresh snack they expect.

Franklin: At the end of the day, the “eatability” and volume of your product—and your relationship with your customers—play a big part in the success of your brand.

Schum: What’s in the popcorn bag is what the customers are buying. But packaging needs to be quality, so customers don’t worry about anything leaking through while they’re watching the movie.

Bartoni: Through the years, popcorn bags really haven’t changed that much. However, one change in recent years was our ability to come up with an environmentally friendly, 100-percent biodegradable popcorn bag—and still maintain our leak-proof quality. A number of theatre chains have switched over to the Eco Select bags as a way of showing that they care about the environment and are doing something about it.

Cretors: For as long as we’ve been in business, we’ve taken what works and kept improving it and we’ve taken what hasn’t and eliminated it. We keep asking: How can we make our machines more profitable for our customers—and how do we make the product they’re selling better-tasting and more consistent for their customers? We continue to change our machines to meet the ever-changing needs of our customers. 

Franklin: I think there’s always room for improvement in the seed itself, but you’re talking about an agricultural product. It’s taken us this many years to get to where we are, and change in anything that has to be grown is going to be gradual. Being able to pop a high-expanding popcorn that doesn’t break very easily is the next big challenge.

Schum: The main key to popcorn sales is really just to make sure theatres pop it and get it out in front of the customer.

Bartoni: Because despite all the other concession options, the biggest seller at the theatres is still popcorn.