World Series of Popcorn Culture
By Deborah Cassell

Like baseball, board games — and celebrity gossip — are an all-American pastime. It’s no wonder that brain-teasers like Trivial Pursuit inspired the creation of a TV game show that tests all the useless pop culture knowledge, like it or not, in our brains.
This summer, the second season of VH1’s “World Series of Pop Culture” will commence. And audiences no doubt will be glued to their couches — legs crossed, remote controls at-the-ready and popcorn — the all-American accompaniment to a night of prime-time television — popped.
In the battle of the microwavable brands, Orville Redenbacher, Pop Secret, Jolly Time and Jiffy Pop might be top of the pops, but regional companies are challenging these industry leaders with innovative and often gourmet ready-to-eat flavors.
However, according to Ron Razete, president of Marci’s Fun Foods, LLC, Moon Township, Pa., “popcorn is facing several challenges from both the RTE [ready-to-eat] side and the microwave side. Many popcorn growers are planting field corn for sale to ethanol plants, putting price pressure on popcorn. We have already seen a 5% increase and expect additional price increases.”
That said, there is an upside to the all-natural treat, and it’s something everybody in the industry is talking about.
“Right now, whole grains are hot,” says Kyser Thompson, chief storyteller for LesserEvil Brand Snack Co., Village of Tuckahoe, N.Y. Because popcorn is chock-full of whole grains, many products are benefiting from their afterglow.
Companies such as LesserEvil strive to offer more healthful varieties than what’s already out there, but they have to be careful just how far they go with packaging claims.
According to Thompson, the LesserEvil brand is “100% honest with the snacking public. We never elude that we’re selling baby carrots and celery here — just healthier options.”
And as the say, once you pop, you can’t stop.
Ready, Set, Eat
For consumers who can’t wait 90 seconds to pop their corn or for those seeking more upscale flavors, there are plenty of RTE alternatives.
For example, the O-KE-DOKE brand from Ubiquity Brands of Chicago offers popcorn in Cheese, Hot Cheese and White Cheddar Cheese flavors.
Speaking of savory, Marci’s Fun Foods is a master at kettle corn, that sweet-meets-salty combination. This year, the six-year-old company has a new manufacturing facility in Cleveland for increased capacity and quality control. It also started shipping directly into the warehouses of some of its retail partners. And in July, Marci’s will introduce a vending size. Future flavors include Caramel and White Cheddar.
Kettle corn also is the focus for LesserEvil, which has declared 2007 “The Year of the Snack.” The manufacturer offers popcorn in flavors such as Black & White (chocolately kettle corn), SinNamon, PeanutButter Choco and MaplePecan, as well as Classic KettleCorn.
Meanwhile, all-savory flavors are the bread and butter, so to speak, for Denver-based Oogie’s Gourmet Popcorn, which offers individual batch varieties such as White Cheddar, Smoked Gouda, Sun-Dried Tomato & Parmesan, Asiago & Cracked Pepper, Spicy Chipotle & Lime, Romano & Pesto, and Caprese — yes, like the Italian tomato and mozzarella salad. Each is trans fat-, cholesterol- and sugar-free. Four of the varieties now are available in 1-oz., single-serve bags for fun on the run.
“Our efforts have helped popcorn enjoy the same kind of resurgence that beer, coffee and other food products now enjoy,” says Eric Their, who co-founded Oogie’s with friends Matt Mansi and Darrin Foster. “For people obsessed with popcorn like we are, ours is a welcome addition to their lives.”
Unlike many other RTE brands, Oogie’s is kettle- or “wet-popped” in corn oil and then seasoned with dry spices and cheese, resulting in a crunchier product. The company also uses butterfly instead of mushroom cap corn to hold the flavor better.
This year, Oogies already has surpassed its sales for all of 2006. It’s also winning awards. Chile Pepper Magazine — yes, you read correctly — just named the brand’s Spicy Chipotle & Lime popcorn one of its “20 Best Spicy Snacks.”
Ready-to-Eat Popcorn — Top 5 Brands
(For 52 weeks ending March 25, 2007)
Rank Brand Dollar Sales (in millions) % Change Dollar Share Dollar Share Change vs. Previous Year
1 Smart Food $41.1 +10.4 20.1 +1.3
2 Poppycock $ 20.0 -8.2 9.8 -1.2
3 Crunch N Munch $17.6 +15.9 8.6 +1.0
4 Private Label $15.7 +19.2 7.7 +1.0
5 Cracker Jack $15.4 -1.0 7.5 -0.3
Total, including brands not shown $204.4 +3.2 100.0  
Source: Information Resources, Inc.
Total U.S. – Supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers (excluding Wal-Mart)
Savory gourmet flavors are tasty, indeed. But when combined with nuts and chocolate or even caramel, popcorn turns decidedly decadent.
Take In-dul-gence by Poppycock from Ubiquity Brands of Chicago. The gourmet snack designed for and by women comes in five flavors, two of which contain popcorn. Chocolate Crush features clusters of caramel mocha-coated popcorn, hazelnuts and walnuts drizzled in creamy milk chocolate. Toast of the Town offers double glazed clusters of peanut butter-coated popcorn, macadamia nuts, almonds and pecans drizzled with creamy milk chocolate. The kernel never had it so good.
Check your local listings for this summer’s “World Series of Pop Culture.” And check your local grocery store for these tasty varieties. SOI
Under a Micro-Wave
Just as many celebrities find themselves under the watchful eyes of the paparazzi — as well as tabloid entertainment “news” shows — so do microwave popcorn brands face scrutiny from shoppers. With so many brands and varieties in the aisles, today’s consumer might find it difficult to choose between pop-it-yourself kettle corn and movie theater butter, for example.
Jolly Time is making things a little easier with the creation of its new Better Butter variety. The well-known brand from American Popcorn Co., Sioux City, Iowa, boasts a “full-flavored butter popcorn that’s trans fat-free.”
Yes, trans fat-free butter popcorn. But does it taste good? Definitely, says Garry Smith, company president.
“There are a number of popcorn fans that want to cut out trans fats without cutting out flavor,” Smith notes. “Better Butter raises the bar for all the trans fat-free brands on the shelf.”