For 45 years, the Caramelcorn Shop in Tupelo has enticed legions of customers with the delectable aroma of melting butter, brown sugar and vanilla, mingled with the smell of freshly popped popcorn.
Mouths watering, customers often buy a box – maybe two – or a tin full of Caramelcorn’s tasty treat.
Right now, The Caramelcorn Shop and other gourmet popcorn shops are entering their busiest time of the year. The peak period for popcorn sales for home consumption is in the fall, with the holidays spiking demand. Sales tail off in the spring and summer, but popcorn is a year-round favorite.
One of the healthiest snacks – a cup of air-popped popcorn has 31 calories, while a cup of oil-popped popcorn has 55 calories – popcorn has long been one of the nation’s favorite munchies. Americans eat about 13 billion quarts of popcorn every year. On average, each man, woman and child in the U.S. consumes more than 10 gallons of popcorn a year.
While buttered popcorn is exotic as it gets at the movie theater, popcorn lovers at home have a cornucopia of sweet and savory – sometimes a combination – of flavors from which to choose.
The gourmet popcorn shops offer dozens of flavors, from buffalo chicken wing to birthday cake, red velvet cake to cheesecake and even cajun seafood boil and lemon pepper.
At The Little Popper in Tupelo, owner Courtney Shaw has created many of her own flavors. Some have been hits, some have been misses. In business for nearly three years, the store has had to pare back the number of offerings to meet the demand of only its top-selling products.
Essentially a three-person operation, they can only do so much.
“We’ve narrowed it down to the flavors we know people are getting the most,” Shaw said. “We now have right at 50, but we have had as many as 80 or 90. Not always at the same time, but that’s what was available.”
No worries, though – she’s always looking for new flavor combinations.
For example, perfect this fall are two newly introduced popcorn flavors: caramel apple and harvest spice – a blend of cinnamon, apple and pumpkin spice.
“For Christmas, we’re introducing hot chocolate, which is chocolate-flavored popcorn with mini marshmallows and drizzled in chocolate,’ Shaw said. “It’s a chocolate lover’s dream.”
The popcorn shops sell their popcorn in a variety of bags, tins and gift baskets, with varying prices depending on the size. Maybe its a quart-size bag of popcorn. Or if you’re throwing a party, a two, three or even six-gallon tub of popcorn is available as well
And the popcorn these stores use isn’t quite like the stuff you pop at home.
Most popcorn comes in two basic shapes when it’s popped: snowflake and mushroom. Snowflake is used in movie theaters and ballparks because it looks and pops bigger. Mushroom is used for candy confections because it doesn’t crumble.
And popcorn can be air popped or popped in oil
Rosa DaLomba, owner of Pop Porium in Starkville, air pops 90 percent of her non-GMO popcorn, insisting that it’s easier to coat the popcorn with flavoring.
“It’s not the most cost-effective way, but we make everything in small batches, and for us, it’s much healthier this way,” she said.
For Christmas, some new flavors being rolled out are gingerbread and peppermint.
“I’m also working on an eggnog flavor,” said DaLomba, who opened her store on Main Street in February. “We specialize in gourmet popcorn, but we also have popcorn balls and we’ve added pralines.”
DaLomba mixes her own flavors as well, coming up with customer favorites like bacon pecan ranch and loaded backed potato.
Starkville is home to another popcorn shop, Tasty Time Gourmet Popcorn. Marjorie Willis opened it this past February after working out of her home. She started with popcorn balls to help raise money for a nonprofit organization, and the popcorn shop provides funding for it. For the holidays, the small shop offers just a few flavors: theater-style popcorn, cheese popcorn, deluxe cheese popcorn, and some sweet and savory varieties.
“Because we’re a small operation, we don’t carry much on the shelf, but we’re able to make it fresh,” she saids
The Bahama Mama is sure to be a holiday favorite. It’s a “dessert cluster” of popcorn, made with light caramel, raisins, macadamia nuts, coconut, dried pineapple, dried papaya and a butter-rum flavor with rum-enhanced white chocolate.
Back at The Caramelcorn Shop in Tupelo, owners Titus and Barbara have been keeping it simple with three basic flavors – their signature caramelcorn, cheese and plain. It’s a formula that’s worked for nearly half a century.
The store is filled with old advertising memorabilia and other collectibles. They’re not for sale – only the popcorn is. And unlike some of the antiques lying around, the popcorn isn’t aged at all.
“We make it fresh daily; nothing ever sits around,” said Rusty Harris, one of the Harris’ sons. “We make it all day, every day.”
Prices range form a $3 box to a $46 six and half gallon tin. And customers can bring in their own tins, as well.
“You should see some of them that some in,” Rusty said. “But we just put a liner in it and fill it up with whatever they want.”
According to The Popcorn Institute, approximately 70 percent is eaten in the home (home popped and pre-popped) and about 30 percent outside the home (theaters, stadiums, schools, etc.). Unpopped popcorn accounts for approximately 90 percent of sales for home consumption.