Sweet, Spicy, and a Whole Lot More

Contributing Writer - Rebekah HoffmannSeptember 6, 2012 

There’s a new snack trend popping up - gourmet popcorn.

In the past year, three Metro East businesses have begun offering specialty popcorns in dozens of varieties ranging from beer and licorice to ranch bacon, Cajun, cinnamon toast, dill pickle and peanut butter chocolate, along with perennial favorites like caramel, cheese and kettle.

There are Abe’s Gourmet Popcorn, an offshoot of the Lincoln Theatre, in downtown Belleville; the free-standing, non-chain Pop-U-Lure in O’Fallon and The Chef’s Shoppe Popcorn store-within-a-store in Edwardsville.

Take one whiff of a freshly prepared batch of the fluffy stuff in any of its new flavor renditions at these places, and you’ll know this old-snack-reborn has the smell of success.

They are selling the popcorn in various bag sizes, dressed up in tins and more for gift-giving -- even made into “cakes” or holiday shapes. Customers can also get most any variety made-to-match school, holiday, wedding/shower colors and more for serving along with other refreshments or as part of a popcorn “bar” with multiple flavors.

Sandy Schoenborn, who, with her husband Dave, owns both Abe’s Gourmet Popcorn and the Lincoln Theatre, said popcorn has always been part of their theater business and Lincoln Theatre has been named “best area popcorn” in past polls.

“We thought, ‘Why not take the next step: give popcorn its separate space and add more flavors?’” she said of the couple opening Abe’s in August 2011. “People can buy their popcorn at Abe’s during the day or get Abe’s popcorn at the theater at night.”

And buy they have. Especially popular have been the Abe’s Mix, which is caramel and cheddar popcorn mixed together, known to many as Chicago Mix, and, with the kids, Rainbow, a mix of individual fruit flavors. But everybody has their own flavor preferences, she said.

Abe’s popcorn maker Bonnie Santanello takes great care in developing the made-from-scratch recipes for all of them, sometimes working weeks to perfect a new variety. Then she makes everything fresh, on site, using real ingredients.

When Isis Jackson, with husband Carlos, opened Pop-U-Lure in May, it was an extension of her lifelong love of popcorn and experimenting in the kitchen.

Jackson has fond childhood memories of eating Chicago Mix popcorn from Garrett’s, Chicago’s iconic popcorn maker, when her aunt brought it home as a special treat. Back then she remembers trying to add her own flavors to home-popped popcorn even before she was old enough to use the stove to pop the popcorn.

“I’ve made special kinds of popcorn for my family for years,” she stressed, adding that she has developed about 200 of her own original specialty popcorn recipes for popcorns that are being featured in the shop on a rotating basis.

“It’s not just a bag of popcorn. It’s not just dropping in some flavoring or a mix from a distributor. It’s me in the back with all my own recipes putting the extra effort and creativity, and the highest quality ingredients into each batch.”

She taste-tested varieties with family, friends and members of her church before opening the shop. Pop-U-Lure’s signature variety, a unique mix of caramel and both white and milk chocolate, was dubbed the all-around pick by this group. Another original, a combo of Pop-U-Lure and cheese that she calls St. Louis Mix, also received rave reviews.

“It sounds weird, but the chocolate really complements the cheese,” Jackson said.

Meanwhile, Chef’s Shoppe owner Nancy Schneider doubled the size of her store a few months ago, using much of the added space for gourmet popcorn.

“I had been interested in having popcorn for several years,” said Schneider, who gets nostalgic thinking about popcorn being the typical Saturday night treat of her growing up years.

After adding fudge two years ago, “I thought popcorn would be great (to go with it), but I just didn’t have room.” While doing research on gourmet popcorn, she got hooked on the idea of having “many, many varieties” and made popcorn an even bigger endeavor than she had originally planned.

“We have about 60 varieties available everyday but that continues to change as we learn what our customers want,” she said, adding that husband and co-owner Scott heads up the popcorn kitchen.

And she’s already finding shop customers are as fond of the popcorn as she is.

Schneider explained, “Anytime we’re doing popcorn sampling in a full shop, we can sell it about as fast as we can pop it.”

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