(Above photo via Atlas Branding)
Corn Grits. Corn Tortillas. Corn chips. The list of foods created by the small golden kernel is long (and that’s not including all of the other creative ways we use this Yellow Gold in soft drinks, chewing gum, sweeteners, toothpaste and so much more!) So, one might assume that you could potentially stop the car, dart out into a passing field of stalks, grab a few, shuck them of their 800 or so kernels and pop those babies into a nice warm buttery bowl and toss in your favorite thriller. It turns out it’s not so simple, as Ginger Frank, Founder of Poppy’s Popcorn, a four year old Asheville-based popcorn company, shared with me. Of course, just like many other crops, there are different varieties, and that is one of the many things Frank found out through the process of popping up her very own dream job.
“Asheville is just this type of town where everyone wants to live yet there aren’t a ton of means to make money,” she shared with me on one afternoon. “So I feel like lots of people try to step outside the box and figure out how they can make a living and my wheels were also really turning in that direction. I was watching The Food Network one night and something came up about a popcorn cafe and I realized there was no homemade popcorn in Asheville. In my very naive mind, I thought how hard could this be. I mean it’s popcorn. Yeah, I’m totally going to do this!”
Quickly, Frank poured everything she had into finding a retail space off Merrimon Avenue. In fact, she found her little corner shop in the shopping center alongside Hop Ice Cream, Rise-n-Shine Cafe and many others and before test popping large batches of popcorn, more than what you would make at home watching a movie at least. “My thought was to have this popcorn shop where people come in and buy bags of popcorn and they’re all happy, then you close down at the end of the day and go to your kid’s soccer game or baseball game and it will be this great, simple and happy life,” Frank shared. While she may have acted on her Food Network dream-scheme overnight, she wasn’t a nube to the corn popping game. Frank says growing up her family owned every popcorn related gadget there was, like the air popper and the new fangled foil poppers with the hand-held wire hook. She also popped homemade batches for her two middle-school aged kids at home for after school snacks, adding in her own mix of seasonings.
“You can buy pre-made mixes from the store and just whip up your popcorn really quickly and that’s super simple. But because I wanted to make my popcorn with real ingredients, nothing artificial, non-GMO and all these good things, it’s definitely more of a science like baking because we’re using real ingredients from scratch rather than these flavoring mixes that are out there on the market. So because of that it tasted different and people really fell in love with it,” she shared.
It didn’t take long for fellow-business owners to put in requests to carry Poppy in their retail stores, something Frank never dreamed of. With a background in retail and merchandising, she had an understanding of that world, yet decided to begin working with Mountain Bizworks to help her work through the start-up costs and business practices. She also quickly hired on Atlas branding to dream up the fun design for her popcorn packaging. “Once we started filling up bags of popcorn for other people to sell, Asheville was no longer our only audience. Anybody could buy it anywhere. That’s when the orders started coming in. At first, it was just word of mouth and I was just stunned. Somebody would call from another state and tell me they wanted to carry Poppy and I was like, ‘What, this is crazy!’ But now we have 600 retailers across the country and have popcorn in almost every state and it’s just insane!”
What began with a Food Network Dream and two part time employees has grown to 24 full time employees, 8 full time, and two locations, with the most recent in Black Mountain as of December, 2017. She recounts the days of running across the street to the grocery to grab a few seasonings then shoot back over to Merrimon Avenue and test pop a large batch. Now, spices are bulk ordered and delivered to her Black Mountain location alongside boxes and boxes of packaging for their retail popcorn.
“We do everything in house and make everything from scratch,” she shares proudly. “There’s a huge kitchen in the back of our Black Mountain store. So, the sweet popcorn goes through a candying process and is cooked in these big kettles–ingredients first followed by the popcorn. Savory popcorn is easier because there is no cooking process. You just have dry ingredients and it’s tumbled to coat each popped kernel. Then we fill each bag by hand and it’s all boxed up and shipped out. We are still making popcorn for the front of the store for those that are just coming int to buy a bag that day.”
Frank’s popcorn batches are anything but the ordinary batches you’ll find lining the shelves at Whole Foods. Poppy offers over 20 flavors, savory to sweet, alongside unique mixes that combine the two. The savory flavors range from familiar popcorn flavors like white cheddar and salt and pepper, to interesting blends like the spicy sriracha pop, jalapeno cheddar and olive oil and rosemary. Have no fear if you like your corn coated in sticky sweetness. For those who enjoy their corn candy-coated, dessert-style flavors range from dark chocolate and cherry to chocolate peppermint bark and the best selling Asheville Mix–a perfect blend of salted caramel and white cheddar. “It’s a salty sweet mix and it’s a best seller because it really is delicious and because of the name. Even in other parts of the country it’s our number one seller. A friend of mine was just in the Seattle airport and sent me a picture saying “Oh my gosh, I just saw Poppy in the Seattle airport!” I knew it was there but I never thought I’d have a friend send me a picture of it. The Asheville Mix is there in the Seattle airport. I mean Asheville is a brand in it’s own and everybody loves it so even if they don’t live here, they’ve heard so much about it, it’s just a cool place to be.”
So where is all of this delicious corn, covered in herbs and caramels, being shipped to Seattle and across the nation, coming from? The closest supplier, Frank shares, is in the midwest, “because that’s corn country.” Just a few months back, however, Frank reached out to North River Farms in Mills River, who currently grows rosemary for one of their savory blends. She asked Owner Jason Davis if he would be interested in growing a test crop of popcorn for her and he said yes. It turns out much of western North Carolina’s corn crops are used for feed and edible ear corn. “What I’ve learned in talking with Jason, the owner of the farm, is it’s the soil, and not knowing how big of a kernel it will make. The kernels needed for popcorn are pretty big because they need to be hearty enough to withstand the coating process when it’s turned into sweet popcorn, so if it’s too small and fragile, then it just crumbles. So that’s what we’re looking for, not whether it would grow or not, just whether the soil is going to be rich enough for that variety to make a large enough kernel. He planted the seeds back in April so we’re waiting it out until Fall.”
So what’s on the horizon for Poppy? A move into the bustling downtown scene is a dream for Frank as well as a future store in a city outside of western North Carolina, although she shares, she “will always go for cities that have an Asheville feel, not big cities. We still want to be where people live like Asheville-people live and have the same kind of priorities and things like that. We feel like that’s part of what made us successful. We have a town that supports local and small business and really had a heart for good ingredients. Maybe without all that we wouldn’t have made it.”
The story above was featured in the summer edition of Food Life Magazine. Scoop up a physical copy at 20+ locations around western North Carolina for additional stories, recipes, and swoon-worthy images by baker and photographer Tiffany Welsh (IG: @wellfedbaker). + Learn more about Poppy Popcorn and where you can purchase their scrumptious locally made snacks!