A Snack Trend With Pop: Gourmet Popcorn Takes Over

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Move over, CrackerJack: The hottest snack food of 2013 is gourmet popcorn. And we’re not talking that bright orange stuff that comes in the tins you get around the holidays, or the vats with the synthetic butter you get at the movies. Today’s popcorn has gone seriously decadent, flavored with everything from black truffles to the Italian spirit Campari to wasabi. 

Americans eat around 16 billion quarts of popcorn a year, according to The Popcorn Board, and artisanal, handmade varieties are garnering an increasing chunk of what was nearly a $1 billion market at the beginning of the decade. The Doc Popcorn chain, which claims to be the biggest popcorn retailer in the world since it began franchising in 2009, has grown by leaps and bounds; co-founder Rob Israel told CNBC that his company has 85 locations open and 300 in development.

The Boston Globe and the Syracuse Post-Standard both report that gourmet popcorn shops are flourishing. Maybe the economy is doing better than the data would suggest, if enough of us have the discretionary income to fork over $4 or $5 for a small bag.

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Oh, that’s the other thing about this trendy treat: It’s not cheap. But snackers seem willing to pay for the variety and the convenience, says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at consulting company Technomic. “The consumer can’t create it easily at home, and when they’re out, they’re willing to pay more for it,” he says. “The impulse nature… and the convenience factor of getting it fresh is certainly going to go a long way towards that price point.”

“People come to our mall stores. They will literally buy a bag, eat it, and buy another bag,” Israel told CNBC.

Gourmet popcorn is even edging out the cupcake tower at trendy gatherings, with photos of and chatter about gourmet popcorn bars popping up on wedding-planning forums, blogs, and social networking sites like Pinterest. “Elaborately spiced and flavored popcorn has been showing up at events in 2012, and caterers are predicting that they’ll see even more in 2013,” the event industry trade magazine Catersource predicts.

Food marketing company the Sterling-Rice Group and the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade say gourmet popcorn is one of the top 10 food trends for the year. Sterling-Rice predicted popcorn will “explode” this year thanks to its “addictive” quality and its use as a vehicle for sweet and savory flavors.

Doc Popcorn’s flavors include the classics — caramel, a couple varieties of cheddar, sweet and savory buttered — as well as more unusual ones like jalapeno and cinnamon. Other popcorn purveyors push the envelope even further with flavors like bacon, buffalo and blue cheese, s’mores, spicy or salted caramel, stout beer, and cheesecake.

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Aside from its versatility, the other reason behind popcorn’s newfound popularity is that the popcorn business is a relatively easy one to break into, Tristano says. The start-up costs aren’t exorbitant; the corn is simple enough to make with equipment that can fit into a kiosk or small storefront; and, as anyone who’s made a batch themselves can attest, it doesn’t take a high level of technical know-how to make the stuff.

Even though popcorn — the world’s supply of which is almost all grown here in the U.S. — was affected by the drought that afflicted the nation’s agricultural belt last year, experts don’t see that affecting its popularity, or, for that matter, its profitability. Although both retail and wholesale prices rose this fall, Reuters said, Tristano says the cost of the corn is only a small portion of a seller’s costs.

But will popcorn have the staying power of other food trends like bacon or cupcakes, or will it be a flash in the, er, kettle?  “It’s a question of whether popcorn is enough to hang a retail business on for the long term,” Louise Kramer of the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade tells the Globe. “As a popcorn retailer you have to keep it interesting and different.”