Princeton Grad Goes POP!

While many of us run around, looking for a way to honor Mom this week, Jonathan Lea, 24, already has that in the bag—literally. The 2009 Princeton economics grad has taken a, shall we say, kernel of an idea and turned it into a sweet and salty business.

When Lea left his Texas home to enroll at Princeton University, his Mom’s care packages got him through all the hard work, and made the good times even sweeter.

“Mom always sent her homemade sweet and salty popcorn for me and my friends,” says Lea. “Everyone loved it!”

Late in his senior year (his thesis examined how changes in household wealth affect charitable giving) as he contemplated his future, Lea bought a hand-cranked, stove-top popper and started using Mom’s recipe to make popcorn for his friends.

Soon came his ‘Aha’ moment. He thought, “Why not start a kettle corn company?”

Despite a touch of skepticism about this unorthodox use of a college degree, he received nothing but support from his family.

Versed in basic economics, Lea knew he didn’t want to go into debt to reach his goal, so that first summer after graduation he worked three jobs and spent many late-night hours researching popcorn varieties and equipment.

Finally, after selling his beloved 1992 Honda, he was able to scrape together enough capital to buy some portable second-hand equipment along with a trailer and pickup truck. He began working various festivals and farmer’s markets. Trading ivied halls for a bright yellow and red tent, he launched Good Times Kettle Corn.

The product was well received, but “I realized that focusing on these live events was really limited by weather and season, so I had to come up with a new business plan,” Lea says.

He has since adapted his equipment to work in a cooperative commercial kitchen in Montgomery Township, where he can pop enough product to supply retail outlets (when he finally lands them) and fill online orders.

Although he has yet to give up his gig as a research assistant at the University, Lea’s nod to his Mom’s salty-sweet sustenance over the years and across the miles is off to a promising start.

SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at

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