Written by Roger McCredie | Photos by Anthony Harden
The first popcorn, we are told, was discovered in Mexico some 5,600 years ago. By that time, corn itself had been cultivated as a food crop for a couple of thousand years, so it must have come as a surprise to Mexico’s indigenous peoples of five millennia ago when a container of seed corn, exposed to moderate heat, suddenly began erupting into puffy white nodules while emitting a volley of soft pops.
Over the centuries, this volatile maize made its way to the upper reaches of Native America. It is recorded that the Iroquois introduced it to the first European explorers, who no doubt watched the bursting kernels first with cries of “Sacre bleu!” or “Carramba!” or “Egad!” and similar exclamations before concluding that it was good to eat, but would be greatly improved with a little salt and butter.
These adventuresome early foodies were probably not aware that the strain of corn yielding this phenomenon simply has a hard outer hull that encloses a starchy inner core, and that when exposed to heat, this inner core expands, bursting through the hull with a tiny explosion. They only knew that as a snack, it made a great accompaniment to watching stickball matches or an afternoon of bear-baiting.
In fact, “popped corn,” as it was first called in 1848 by Russell Bartlett (the quotations man) in his Dictionary of Americanisms, became such a treat that the preparation as well as the eating of it became a family occasion. A popcorn popper—a basketlike contraption of wire mesh with a long handle—became a standard fireplace accessory. To achieve popping success, however, it was necessary to master the technique of continuously shaking the popper over the coals instead of open flame. Failure to do this resulted in an acrid, smoking litter of blackened kernels in the bottom of the popper.
To the rescue came one Charles Cretors, a baker and confectioner in Lebanon, Ohio, who discovered that a peanut roaster he had invented worked just as well as a popcorn popper. He field tested his contraption on the midway at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 and found that the public’s demand for popcorn was at least as great as its craving for roasted peanuts. The two snacks were often sold in tandem from city pushcarts, and popcorn found a new and lasting niche as a staple of the era’s newest social temple, the movie theater.
In 1951 Charles Bowman and his partner, Orville Redenbacher, a bespectacled ex-fertilizer salesman with a fondness for bow ties, bought a seed corn plant near Valparaiso, Indiana. They tested literally thousands of strains of popping corn before settling on one they called “RedBow” and began marketing it. The partners hired an ad agency, which, in the way of ad agencies, charged them $13,000 for recommending that the company and the product be known as Orville Redenbacher’s. Bowman had to console himself with several million dollars.
All of which is how it came to pass that Ginger Frank founded Poppy Handcrafted Popcorn in Asheville, North Carolina. Well, eventually.
Frank, mother of two, came to Asheville some 15 years ago from Fort Myers, Florida. She entered a career in retail and eventually became manager of companion stores Blossom (a florist) and The Baggy Goose (stationery and wedding invitations), now in Biltmore Park’s Town Square. “But I wanted to do something on my own.” she says. “I started looking at my own experience and how that might fit with Asheville’s personality.”
Her capacity for simultaneous internal and external analysis is a part of Frank’s personality makeup that has been noticed before. In early 2014, Verve magazine said of her:
“For those of us who approach change and think ‘natural disaster,’ it’s refreshing to find there’s another point of view in the world and, actually, close by. That perspective comes from Ginger Frank, a person who gladly (even avidly) launches from one thing to the next and re-imagines new beginnings as a kind of art form.
“It’s a perspective that has helped the Florida native visualize what’s possible… just as it has flooded many other blank canvasses in her life with a fresh light.”
“Popcorn is a happy food. There’s so much you can do with it, flavor-wise, and even the smell has something special about it; it’s a kind of magic.”
Which is another way of saying Ginger Frank thinks outside the box, and later in 2014 it turned out that the box was full of popcorn.
“One thing kept coming back to me,” she recalls. “When I was growing up there was a popcorn store in town. Just one, and it always did well. Everybody likes popcorn. And they don’t always want to go to the movies or a ball game to get it, but those happy associations are there. Popcorn is a happy food. There’s so much you can do with it, flavor-wise, and even the smell has something special about it; it’s a kind of magic. I thought about that, and I thought about how magical Asheville is, and I said, ‘Hmm…’”
For Frank, the magic now happens in a second-floor storefront in a bustling Merrimon Avenue restaurant/retail complex that is also home to, among other establishments, an ice cream parlor, Japanese and Mexican restaurants, a spa, and a hair salon. The door displays Poppy’s logo—an open red poppy blossom with, as its center, a pristine white popcorn kernel. Ginger Frank opens the store’s door, revealing a front space with a lounge-style seating area in front of a service counter that’s equipped with chalkboards showing the array of popcorn flavors on offer, including weekly specials.
Noting the ever-full parking lot and Poppy’s location in this hive of activity, a writer is prompted to ask what percentage of Poppy’s business is walk-in trade, and is somewhat surprised by the answer.
“Actually not that much, in the scheme of things,” Frank says. “In the beginning, over-the-counter was a big part of the business, but these days most of what we do is corporate-oriented. The front here is sort of like a factory outlet. And this is the factory. Everything we make comes right out of here,” she says, gesturing past the counter towards the kitchen area, which, the interviewer now realizes, takes up most of the actual floor space.
“I think that’s what I was feeling for when I first came up with the popcorn store idea,” she elaborates, “to go beyond just being a popcorn boutique, per se, to being a supplier of boutique popcorn for other people. Popcorn lasts a long time—keeps its flavor and freshness a long time—and that means it’s good to pass on to third parties.
“For instance,” she says, “we have a standing order with an orthodontist here in town who gives a bag of popcorn to his patients when they get their braces off. Since you sure can’t eat popcorn with braces on, it’s kind of like a graduation certificate.”
Hotels and their gift shops are also prime prospects, particularly since they cater to a captive audience that has already been pre-screened by its choice of the hotel itself. “But we don’t do any private-label contracting,” Frank says. “Poppy Handcrafted Popcorn is sold as Poppy, no matter where it’s resold.”
“The same is true of fundraisers,” she adds. “We do nearly all our own packaging and we can have special packaging designed for a particular event or organization, but our name and logo still go on it.”
Fundraisers and special events, in fact, have given a tremendous boost to Poppy’s success. Frank notes that Asheville “is an event-rich town; there’s always something happening. And a lot of volunteerism and nonprofit activity goes on here. We try, in particular, to partner with agencies and causes that we feel strongly about. A good example is the Community Foundation [of Western North Carolina]. This past year we were a sponsor of their Power of the Purse luncheon, and we’ve donated twenty percent of our profits from November through February directly to their Women’s Fund, which goes towards their Women-for-Women grant program.
“This is good marketing, good networking for us, but it’s more than that. It helps establish us as members of the business community who care about Asheville. We’ll be contributing to and helping four new nonprofits this year; next year we hope to do four different ones.”
So how does Poppy market itself at the corporate level?
“Well,” she says, “if we can get people to try it, the product is our own best advertising. So we just try to do a lot of direct selling. When we first started out, I spent an awful lot of time just driving around with a car full of popcorn samples and knocking on doors. Things are a little easier now that we’ve achieved some recognition, but that’s still the underlying marketing plan—get ‘em to try the popcorn. If we can do that, the rest usually takes care of itself.”
And what about the product itself? They teach you in Marketing 101 that you have to have a USP—a unique selling proposition that sets your product apart from the competition’s. What’s Poppy’s USP?
“That’s easy,” says Frank. “It’s all natural. Everything. Starting with the popcorn itself.”
Frank’s principal raw popcorn supplier is Reist Popcorn Company, a family firm in the heart of Amish country, Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. The company’s profile speaks to simplicity, wholesomeness, and solid growth based on hard work: “Reist Popcorn Company,” it says, “ has always believed that the best way to run a business dedicated to quality and service is by starting small and growing steadily. Founded in 1925 by Alvin Reist, the business started on the family-owned Lancaster County farm. Within a few short years, the business moved in the town of Mount Joy to its present location. Over the years, there have been many additions, remodels, and equipment updates, evolving to the present state-of-the-art facility that it is today.”
Frank indicates a stack of fifty-pound sacks of Reist popcorn kernels prominently displayed in Poppy’s customer area. “We want people to see that we start with naturally grown, non-GMO popcorn,” she says. “That’s the basis for everything else, and it carries right through all our other ingredients. We only use pure coconut oil to pop with. And all our herbs and spices and flavor ingredients are natural. Even the pink color we use for our ‘cotton candy’ popcorn comes from beets. Organically grown beets.”
Popcorn’s very blandness, Frank explains, is what makes it such an ideal medium for flavoring. It’s a tabula rasa that has little taste of its own, yet readily absorbs and conveys the taste of just about anything else. Classic salt and butter-seasoned popcorn is of course available at Poppy—in fact, that’s how it’s referred to on the flavors list—but Poppy actually makes more than thirty different flavors that gallop across the taste spectrum from spicy to hot to sweet to unpredictable combinations of all three.
Poppy classifies its flavors as “Savory” (which includes such tastes as Rosemary/Olive Oil, Sriracha, and pimento cheese), “Premium” (such as Triple Chocolate, Chocolate Peanut Butter, and Dark Chocolate Pretzel), and “Candied” (Salted Caramel, Cotton Candy, the white cheddar and salted caramel “Asheville Mix,” and the white cheddar, jalapeno cheddar, and salted caramel “Poppy Mix”). There are also several during the year that are “Holiday” flavors and only available for a short time, such as Gingerbread (Christmas) and Easter Confetti (Easter).
Having secured its niche, Poppy is ready, Frank says, to take its next step: an all-retail store in Asheville’s historic Grove Arcade, which opened in mid-April. “It’s a natural progression for us,” she says.
“We feel like, with an all-natural, artisanal product we’re such a perfect fit with the Asheville brand. And nothing’s more emblematic of Asheville and its brand than the Grove Arcade.”
But for Ginger Frank, her business, she says, extends beyond branding and marketing and even the manufacturing of popcorn, per se. Like most entrepreneurs, she sees her business as very much an extension of herself, and she has summed up her thoughts about that two-sided coin in a paragraph appended to the Poppy Handcrafted Popcorn website:
“We love family and we love friends that are like family. We love our teachers and our schools. We love horses and we love baseball. We love great flavor and tasty treats. We love that God thought to plant us in the middle of this beautiful place and this supportive community. We love the sunshine and the snow and each season in between. We like funny jokes, laughing out loud and movie night, and time with our favorite people. We think life should be fun. And simple. And celebrated.”
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