Popcorn Goes Gourmet
The humble snack was American long before Columbus stepped off the boat. Now a New Jersey company is giving it a designer makeover, and a mom-and-pop go wide.
Did you hear the one about the farmer and the Knicks coach?
DALE AND THOMAS POPCORN
If you frequent Times Square, you may remember a store there called Popcorn, Indiana. Back in 2003, that’s where New York Knicks coach and general manager Isiah Thomas first encountered the popcorn that reminded him of the sociable snack his friends and family shared when he was growing up in Chicago. Thomas promptly invested in the business, which was soon renamed Dale and Thomas.
So who is Dale? And where does New Jersey come in? Gather ’round the popcorn bowl, folks. Popcorn, Indiana, the company, was founded in 2002 by entrepreneurs Richard Demb and Warren Struhl—the latter a long-time resident of Englewood—after they paid a visit to the actual town of Popcorn, Indiana (pop. 50). Their host was the loquacious and convivial then mayor, Dale Humphrey, who raises cattle, not popcorn, but knows his Zea mays everta (the species of corn that pops, which sweet corn doesn’t). He isn’t involved in Dale and Thomas, but the company name is Struhl and Demb’s tip of the hat to him and the investor-coach.
Struhl chose Englewood for the Dale and Thomas plant, which pops all the corn the company sells online, and makes all the toppings and mix-ins it sends to the fourteen Dale and Thomas stores, three in New Jersey. Each store pops its own corn daily, using the same fancy-grade, mushroom-shaped kernel grown in Indiana that the plant uses.
Dale and Thomas’ hook is “popcorn chef” Ed Doyle, a 1990 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a former executive chef at Boston hotels. Doyle has dreamed up more than 100 kinds of popcorn munchies, including peanut butter and white chocolate, cinnamon crème, Southwest cheddar chipotle, and toffee crunch. And, yes, good old plain popcorn, just like Isiah’s mom used to make.
Livingston Town Center, 4145 Town Center Way (973-535-1805); Bridge- water Commons Mall, 400 Commons Way (908-685-3110); 719 American Legion Drive, Teaneck (201-645-4586); an Englewood retail store is scheduled to open in June. daleandthomas.com.
By popular demand (their friends and family), John and Lois fire up the roving kettle.
GRANNY’S KETTLE KORN
Does a Granny really stir the caramel? Sure, just like Santa slides down the chimney. But behind the sweet name there is a sweet story. John and Lois Battistini ran a mom-and-pop pasta business, Battistini’s, for 35 years. In 2001 they sold the company and looked for a “less labor-intensive and more fun” way to make money, says John.
The answer was under their noses. For years they had been making batches of kettle corn as gifts for friends and family. Encouraged that people who got their hands on a bag were rarely willing to share, they launched a new, largely mail-order business last year.
Kettle corn is not just a made-up name. It’s caramel popcorn with a pinch of salt—“pretty addictive,” in John’s words. In the old days the confection was cooked in cast-iron kettles, but stainless steel is today’s vessel of choice. The Battistinis—who live and work in Estell Manor, an Atlantic County town between Vineland and Ocean City—take their 80-quart pots to crafts fairs and cook on site over a portable gas burner. They also sell online and by phone order.
The Battistinis stir in flavorings while the corn is popping in hot oil and again after it has cooled. They use a high-end kernel grown in the Midwest (seems like kernel warfare with Dale and Thomas). Granny’s best seller is the kettle corn, but they also make sour cream and chive, jalapeño, and white cheddar, as well as salt-free and sugar-free (with Splenda) varieties. We hear Santa’s been canoodling with Granny, but he’s only in it for the popcorn.
131 Cumberland Avenue, (609-476-2184). grannyskorn.com.
Behold, teenage teamwork.
One of the best free shows on the boardwalk is watching two teenagers in high gear turn out tubs of caramel corn. On a balmy summer night, clutches of people will stand outside the open windows at Johnson’s three Boardwalk locations, entranced by the aromas as much as by the teamwork.
One kid pops the corn in a rotating six-foot-high air popper, then shakes the receiving basket to sift out unpopped kernels. Meanwhile, the other kid stirs the bubbling pot of sugar, butter, and corn syrup that will become the caramel. Finally, the popped corn is tumbled into the vat of caramel (nuts are added for the peanut crunch), stirred, cooled, and scooped into takeout containers.
Johnson’s has been a Boardwalk fixture since 1940. John Stauffer, a retired schoolteacher, bought the business in 1974. Last year, he says, the three locations popped an unprecedented 82,000 pounds of kernels. If you buy the $9.50 28-ounce size, hold onto the plastic tub for a $1.75 discount on the refill.