WORDS BY ANDREA PYENSON / PHOTOGRAPHS BY KATIE NOBLE
When Quinn Popcorn hit store shelves last September, “we didn’t know if we were crazy or not and if people wanted to eat [premium] microwave popcorn,” says Kristy Lewis, who co-founded the company with her husband, Coulter. Roughly two months later, they were out of stock and had to work frantically to get the second batch ready in time to fill orders for the holiday season.
The Lewises launched Quinn Popcorn in September 2010, a month after their son, Quinn, was born. (Any similarity between the two names is purely intentional.) But they had come up with the idea to reinvent microwave popcorn a few years earlier, because there was none available that they felt comfortable serving to friends and family, let alone eating themselves.
In its pure form, popcorn is a healthy snack. A whole-grain food that is high in fiber and antioxidants and low in calories, it’s easy to make on the stove or in a popcorn maker; even easier to just toss a bag in the microwave, wait a few minutes for it to pop, then pour the hot, fluffy pieces into a bowl. And there’s something so appealing about a warm snack that fills the house with a delicious aroma.
But it turns out that commercial microwave popcorn is rife with the kinds of artificial and/or unpronounceable ingredients that give health-conscious eaters pause. And the bags it is popped in are lined with chemicals that vaporize in heat, then migrate into the popcorn, ultimately making their way into the bloodstream of whoever eats it. One of these, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has been shown to cause cancer in animals. And the others can create risks of assorted problems, including elevated cholesterol and lowered immune function.
Kristy and Coulter’s plan was to combine the best of this often-addictive snack with the convenience of the microwave—and eliminate the chemicals. As principal designer at IDEO Labs, an innovative design consultancy in Cambridge, Coulter is used to applying novel approaches to help clients improve their products or services. In the case of Quinn Popcorn, he and his wife were the clients.
One look at the packaging tells buyers that Quinn is not your average microwave popcorn. Designed by Coulter, with the help of an illustrator, it doesn’t scream, like some other brands, in bold primary colors with lots of copy outside and as many ingredients inside. The cover of the simple white box sports a drawing of a cornhusk, colored according to the flavor, and the promise “microwave popcorn reinvented.” Popping and flavoring instructions are on one side, ingredients—organic popcorn kernels, oil and a couple of flavorings—and nutritional information are on the other. The back invites buyers to “meet our ingredients,” of which the couple is justifiably proud.
Unlike most commercial brands, Quinn Popcorn eschews everything artificial.
Kristy spent the year between the birth of the couple’s son and the first product shipment sourcing ingredients, from corn kernels to popping bags. She also developed recipes for the company’s current flavors: Vermont maple & sea salt, rosemary & Parmesan and lemon & sea salt. “The flavors hit sweet, savory and sour,” she says.
“Non-GMO was very important to us,” Kristy explains, referring to the designation that signifies food products that have not been genetically modified. “Organic is very important, too, but organic is very expensive, so it’s not always possible.”
It took six months to find a corn supplier, a grower that was one of the first to certify its corn as organic, then non-GMO. “We got really, really lucky with that,” Kristy says.
It also took six months, and lots of experimentation, to find the compostable, food grade, naturally grease-resistant glassine paper bags in which the corn is popped and to get the bag’s composition right. In addition to chemicals, most commercial microwave popcorn bags have susceptors that heat the kernels quickly. These are made of paper coated with aluminum flake or metal film. Like the chemicals, when these elements get hot, they can leach into the popcorn. So Kristy and Coulter decided to leave them out. As a result, people have to pay a bit more attention while the corn is popping, to make sure it doesn’t burn. And a few more kernels may go unpopped. But the Lewises feel it’s worth the trade-off for a healthier product.
While most microwave popcorn comes fully flavored, Quinn Popcorn is packaged with corn kernels in the popping bag and oil and flavorings in separate pouches, to be added once the corn is popped. “The biggest challenge is to find ingredients that don’t have additives,” Kristy explains. She devoted as much attention to locating these ingredients as the corn and paper bags. For the rosemary and Parmesan flavor, Kristy searched until she finally found a dairy that produces hormone-free cheese and additive-free powdered cheese. The couple selected non-GMO canola oil for the maple & sea salt and rosemary & Parmesan flavors, and a combination of canola and grapeseed for the lemon & salt.
Before the Lewises started their company, they did not pay much attention to local food businesses, even though “We’re both kind of foodies,” says Kristy. Now she speaks appreciatively of the “friendly, friendly people” in the local food community “who so willingly provide advice.”
Since the early days (about six months ago), when Quinn Popcorn was only in two Whole Foods markets, in Hingham and Fresh Pond, business has exploded. The business moved from a teeny area that was less than 200 square feet in Somerville to an 1,800-square-foot warehouse in Woburn—space that Kristy says they will probably outgrow soon. There she, Coulter, their two employees and a rotating group of interns from Boston-area colleges pack, case and ship the popcorn. They plan to add new flavors as soon as they can get them developed and tested.
It looks like people wanted premium microwave popcorn after all.
To find Quinn Popcorn in your area go to quinnpopcorn.com.
Andrea Pyenson writes about food and travel. Her work has appeared in several print and online publications, including the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Edible Cape Cod, Fine Cooking, msn.com and oneforthetable.com. Her first cookbook, Wicked Good Barbecue, written with local chef Andy Husbands and Chris Hart, was published in March. Andrea can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.