by Anne Gilbert
have a medium popcorn,
but could you butter it halfway and shake it up some, and then I’ll salt it and you can fill it the rest
of the way? Oh, and don’t pack it down too hard.”
I spent most
evenings and weekends of my high school years working behind
the concession counter at a two-screen art
house in Los Gatos, Calif., and learned quickly there that
the bond between a theatre patron and his popcorn is not
one with which to trifle. The other thing I figured out
right away was that resisting the seductively unmistakable
of freshly popping corn is nearly impossible.
has popcorn stories. The Motion Picture Association of
America chief once enjoyed almost nightly boyhood trips
to Wichita’s Crest Cinema, but those trips didn’t
often take him beyond the venue’s lobby. His father,
he remembers, “would send one of us three kids in there,
and we’d buy popcorn. We wouldn’t go to the movies,
we’d just buy popcorn and bring it home!”
such a part of the moviegoing experience that you can’t
not have popcorn at the theatre,” points out Susan
Cross, director of communications for the National Association
of Concessionaires. And because it is such an iconic component,
it’s difficult to imagine that – once upon a
time – moviehouse operators actually took pains to
distance their venues from the fluffy yellow treat.
Popcorn’s evolution has been extensively documented
in books like Andrew F. Smith’s “Popped Culture:
Popcorn in America,” numerous newspaper and magazine
articles, and literature provided by popcorn companies and
the Popcorn Museum in Marion County, Ohio.
B.C.- Approximate date of origin
for corn pollen discovered outside Mexico City.
B.C. – Approximate
date of origin for kernels found in central New Mexico,
some still fresh
enough to pop.
- First nickelodeon theatres open. Popcorn vendors
quickly discover the best place to sell their wares:
right in front of the theatre.
- During the Great Depression, theatre owners
take over popcorn sales, a move credited for keeping
many cinemas open during hard times.
- Popcorn declared
a WWII “essential product” and
theatres install permanent counters featuring fresh
popcorn. Consumption nearly triples.
1949 – 86 percent
of movie theatres in America sell popcorn; by 1951,
is up to 96 percent,
and more than half of the popcorn consumed in the United
States is eaten in a theatre.
The food has long history: Archaeologists
found 80,000-year-old corn pollen in Mexico and, in the American
kernels fresh enough to pop. (Jane Austen’s 1889 novel “Standish
of Standish” even names popcorn as a menu item brought
by the Native Americans to the first Thanksgiving – though
historians dispute that popcorn was grown in eastern New
England in 1621.)
Despite the public’s longstanding love of the kernel,
popcorn was not always welcome at moviehouses. Early cinema
owners, anxious to distinguish their venues from the food-friendly
burlesque houses, banned eats from the premises, per the
tradition of the classier legitimate theatres. (The earliest
exhibitors were also said to not appreciate popcorn’s
Street vendors, however, were
quick to exploit the sidewalks in front of cinemas as ideal
points-of-purchase. Timing the
corn to pop hot and fresh at the beginning and end of each
show, they discovered, was the best way to move the merchandise.
Theatre owners did, of course,
eventually wake up to the lucrative nature of the popcorn
business. The affordability
of the snack boosted its popularity during the Depression,
and many credit it with keeping numerous theatres afloat
during hard times. In “Popped Culture,” Smith
recounts several anecdotes of popcorn vendors and forward-thinking
theatre operators using it to flourish during the crippling
Smaller, independent cinemas were the first to embrace in-theatre
concession sales; venues operated by larger circuits were
generally slower to convert.
During World War II, sugar was
a heavily rationed commodity and many snack foods relied
on ingredients that had to be
shipped in from abroad. Popcorn, though, was a salty treat
grown domestically, and thus consumption tripled during the
war years. Production boomed, too, but the supply was never
enough to meet the enormous demand. By 1945, nearly half
the popcorn consumed in the United States was consumed in
the soft glow of a movie screen. By 1951, 96 percent of all
U.S. cinemas sold popcorn in their lobbies.
The 1950s’ devastating drop-off in cinema attendance,
precipitated by the arrival of television, created a corresponding
decline in popcorn consumption – until, that is, the
era of “convenience corn”: Jiffy Pop was introduced
in 1959; microwave popcorn in the 1970s. Also helping was
the recovering health of the movie industry, which saw its
annual admissions double between 1971 and 2002. In 2004,
cinemas sold about 60 million pounds of popcorn, and the
average American ate 70 quarts of the stuff.
Popcorn, most agree, is its own best salesman. “Just
pop corn while you’re open, while people are coming
to buy tickets, and that’s enough,” relates Mark
O’Meara, president of Fairfax, Va.’s University
Mall Theatres, home of what he bills as the “Best Popcorn
in the Known Universe.”
Operators consistently cite the product’s aroma as
the key to its allure. Even seasoned exhibitors find resistance
futile. “Depending on the way the wind is blowing through
the building, it wafts right up here into my office,” muses
Rand Thornsely, director of film programming at Bear Tooth
Theatre in Anchorage, Alaska. “Sometimes I go get some.”
Ironically, the smell kept popcorn out of
cinemas for years. Facilities were often not equipped with
systems, and installing popcorn machines meant the implementation
of vents; in some cases extensive remodeling was required.
All of this was to minimize the penetrating smell of popping
corn – until it began to dawn on theatremen that the
smell was why the treat sold so well. Modern setups are designed
to minimize any smoky smells, but not the aroma of the popcorn
Larry Etter, president of Malco Theatres,
points out that the setup at his concessions stands are designed
the sight of popped corn as well as the scent: “We
buy glass warmers and put the popcorn out front and on display.
We literally fill the tub with warm popcorn in front of the
customer’s eyes. Our marketing strategy is to get people
to see the popcorn, smell the popcorn and know that it is
It’s a smell that has cemented popcorn’s status
as cinema’s most reliable product. Remarks Ralph Ferber,
president of Great Western Products, a supply company: “Any
new item added [to the concession menu] does not affect the
sales of popcorn.”
Sales are generally highest during the summer
months and at attractions that draw high numbers of kids
Films heavy on action or suspense are also good popcorn movies
because, as the NAC’s Cross explains, “People
get nervous and they want to eat.” Even when it faces
competition, popcorn remains a stalwart seller. The Bear
Tooth is a veteran cinema eatery with more than 100 items
on its menu – but, Thornsely says, “We still
sell an awful lot of popcorn.”
DIRE DAYS of
Even though popcorn is a mainstay for consumers – in
theatres and out – Wendy Boersema Rappel of the Popcorn
Board, a non-profit popcorn promotion agency, points to two
recent periods when consumption dropped.
The first was the high-profile health scare
of a decade ago, when an advocacy group publicized the calorie
and fat values
of buttered theatre popcorn popped in coconut or other palm
oils. In response, numerous theatres experimented with alternatives,
from air-popped corn to popping with canola oil, which is
lower in saturated fats. Results were mixed, as sales only
continued to decline in some theatres.
The scare actually
helped cinemas that were already using the healthier oil. “I’ve been using canola oil
for 14 years,” notes University Mall’s O’Meara. “And
then there’s this big hoopla about popcorn and coconut
oil. We put up big signs and had people wearing buttons and
T-shirts. We didn’t go down much in popcorn sales because
Popcorn took a more recent hit when no- or
low-carbohydrate diets became the rage. “Now, popcorn is enjoying newfound
popularity since it’s a whole grain food and we understand
whole grains are good for the body,” Rappel says.
Know the Terms!
expansion ratio (n) comparison
of size of unpopped kernel to popped corn; the
higher the ratio, the greater the size of the popped
hull (n) the hard, glossy amber
shell that surrounds a kernel of unpopped corn
old maids (n) Kernels that remain
unpopped in the kettle heated.
Not all bags of popcorn are created equal.
Theatre operators look closely at “expansion ratio” – that
is, how big the kernels pop when heated. Great Western’s
Ferber notes, “Most movie theatre circuits specify
a large expansion. The larger the kernel expands, the better
the popcorn is perceived.”
The other advantage of high expansion is the
same number of kernels create a greater number of servings.
the expansion ratio of the corn by five or six points can
translate to 100 more 26-ounce servings from the same size
bag. Ferber cautions, however, that bigger is not necessarily
always better: “Popcorn that expands too greatly has
the tendency to become tough.”
Long plaguing theatre operators – and popcorn lovers – is
the problem of “old maids”: kernels that remain
unpopped at the bottom of the kettle or popcorn bag. Purdue
University researchers discovered that if the kernel has
a leaky hull that allows steam to escape, that piece never
gets enough internal pressure to pop. That team is now working
on ways to select the best popcorn varieties – or create
new ones – to minimize those forlorn kernels.
Popcorn, and popping oil, also comes in a
range of prices – and
corresponding quality. Gary Dupuis, general manager of Polson
Theatres in Montana, cautions that selecting a popcorn is
not a task to be taken lightly: “I have found the theatre
who uses a lower quality brand of popcorn and popping oil
gets exactly what they pay for. Believe me, there is a difference.”
Popcorn may have been a staple of cinema concession
stands for the better part of a half-century, but that doesn’t
mean that theatre operators are letting it get stale.
Rising in popularity are toppings patrons
can add to give popcorn different flavors. Kernel Season’s sells 10
types of seasoning, including parmesan & garlic, white
cheddar, jalapeno, barbeque, apple & cinnamon and chocolate
marshmallow flavors. Though the company offers recipes that
use the seasonings in other forms of cooking, it remains
keen that the seasonings are stocked at cinema concession
stands, and offers exhibitors special promotional displays
and stands for the products.
Why does it pop?
A popcorn kernel is made up of
a tiny plant embryo surrounded by soft starchy material
to provide nutrients as it grows to a plant, all
protected by the hard shell.
When the kernel is heated – usually
to at least 400 degrees Fahrenheit – the water
in the starchy material turns to steam, which in turn
creates pressure on the inside of the hull. It explodes,
and the starch expands as the seed turns inside out.
A popcorn kernel will not pop if the
starch inside has dried out. The perfect kernel has
about 14 percent moisture inside, and an unblemished
hull to allow pressure to build inside.
“People really seem to like them,” notes
O’Meara, who offers
three flavors to patrons at his theatres. Originally, he did not recognize
the appeal, though customers quickly set him straight: He
recalls when he took over
his first theatre, it offered a jalapeno cheese sauce for the popcorn and O’Meara
thought it unnecessary. “Oh, I got yelled at. People got really ornery
when I tried to take that away.”
Thornsley remembers the fare at the cinema
he operated before moving on to the Bear Tooth. “We ran mostly an art house, and we always had out garlic
salt, celery salt, Tabasco, and a couple of other concoctions. People used
to love playing with those.”
Malco’s Etter was similarly dubious when his circuit began offering five
toppings, including standard popcorn salt, to its patrons. “I was relatively
opposed to it at first but realized, after we did it, the general public’s
appreciation and desire to have it. I can’t take it out now.”
“We have found if one theatre has [the
toppings] and 25 miles down the road the other theatre does
not, the customer would voice their opinion about not
having the topping seasons. This is defiantly a plus in popcorn sales,” comments
Dupuis, who also offers Kernel Season’s at Polson’s concessions
Growing popularity has led some chains, like
Malco, to set up separate topping bars, allowing moviegoers
to reate the mixture of butter,
salt and flavored
toppings that suits their tastes.
Some circuits take it even further and offer
alternatives to the traditional corn. Century Theatres has
introduced Kettle Korn, which
and sweet flavoring. The ArcLight Theatre in Hollywood offers caramel
on the premises, in addition to the salt-and-butter variety.
2003 feature in this magazine discussed
the treatment of popcorn overseas. Patrons in Taiwan have
the option of sweet
of chocolate or strawberry flavoring. Cinemex Theatres in Mexico
and lime sauces for its corn. Moviegoers in England, Portugal
and Latin America eat their popcorn sweetened.
Even patrons who prefer the standard
salt-and-butter popcorn sometimes have eyebrow-raising
demands. “We have one
guy who comes in and is extremely finicky,” O’Meara
confides. “He wants the popcorn only from the middle
of the bin. Not the top, not the bottom; the middle. He’s
decided it’s better.”
have also stated preferences for specific levels of saltiness,
temperature and what
we’ll call “smooshitude” — the
degree of force with which popcorn is packed into a bag.
Some want the kernels captured as they fall from the kettle,
and others believe the oils need time to “settle.”
Etter also mentions a heretofore unknown
market of popcorn “accessories.” A “popcorn
fork,” for example, is a long cylinder with a triangle
of prongs on the end that can pick up popped corn without
getting fingers buttery. The popularity of the fork has not
taken off as yet, but there is nothing to say that it could
not become a hit among very tidy popcorn lovers.
Popcorn, for some, makes for a good
mixer. Operators interviewed for this feature mention patrons
who enjoy their corn with
Raisinettes, M&Ms, Goobers, Reese’s Pieces or another
common theatre candy sprinkled throughout. My own mother,
a popcorn aficionado from way back, eats hers with raisins.
The most unusual combination I ever encountered – and
one I was forced to sample, out of sheer curiosity, and that
I will vouch for as quite tasty – is popcorn mixed
liberally with Hot Tamales.
Popcorn can, apparently, make anything