Intrigued by a local start-up we caught word of last summer, PRK sent Radio Boston intern Annie Ropeik into the field to interview a husband/wife team from Arlington, MA, producing a great-tasting, all-natural ‘green’ popcorn.
Does the microwave popcorn world — a world of artificial flavorings and chemical-laden packages — seem a bit burnt out to you? Arlington couple Kristy and Coulter Lewis, owners of rapidly growing start-up Quinn Popcorn, would say there’s a kernel of truth in that.
Named for Kristy and Coulter’s baby son, Quinn bills itself as microwave popcorn reinvented, and it’s popping up in farmers markets and Whole Foods stores all over Massachusetts and beyond.
“It was such a stale category,” Kristy Lewis told me over the phone recently as she drove home from a demo in Wellesley. “We wanted to do something totally different.”
The biggest hurdle, she said, was the bag. Typical microwave popcorn bags contain plastic and other harmful chemicals that can leach into the popcorn, Kristy said, as well as a Teflon strip to help the heating process along. Quinn’s bags are made of recycled, compostable paper.
“I’m really picky about where, what I eat, what I put in my body,” Kristy said. “I get really annoyed when I see artificial ingredients and flavorings.”
The ingredients she chose for Quinn include non-genetically modified popcorn kernels with no pre-added flavoring, oils or salt. That part comes after popping. Each crinkly white paper bag is accompanied by a packet each of pure canola oil and meticulously farm-fresh flavorings harvested from all over the world — parmesan and rosemary, Vermont maple and sea salt, or lemon and sea salt.
“We wanted people to see what they were putting on their popcorn,” Kristy said. “We wanted them to see they were just using straight-up ingredients.”
I’ll admit I was dubious at first about the idea of having to put the flavoring onto the popcorn myself. How would I get it evenly distributed? What if I shook the popcorn right out of the bag? But once I started shaking, I found I couldn’t stop. And Quinn’s unconventional methods work like a charm. With the quirky suggestions for shaking techniques printed on the side of the box and the satisfying shk-shk-shk of the popped kernels jumping around in the paper bag, I was actually having fun.
The popcorn itself is a cut above — light, crunchy, flavorful. It didn’t burn, even in my highly unpredictable microwave, and the parmesan and rosemary flavoring, especially, was fresh-tasting, perfectly balanced and dangerously addictive.
“We wanted to make a fun food product, but we also kind of wanted to create something more than food,” Kristy said. “We really wanted people to be engaged with it.”
That engagement goes beyond bag-shaking. Kristy and Coulter raised the money to get Quinn off the ground using Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website that ultimately donated more than $20,000 to the popcorn start-up. Then, after many demos and a sell-out first batch, came a $25,000 Local Producer Loan from Whole Foods.
“We couldn’t have done it without that loan,” Kristy said. “They’ve been huge supporters. They’ve been our parent and role model.”
Lee Kane, the regional “forager” at Whole Foods who encouraged Kristy and Coulter to apply for the loan and helped put Quinn on Whole Food’s shelves, told me Quinn has met all the challenges of being a small start-up “magnificently.”
“We really try to source local food where we can as long as it’s really excellent. This particular item was completely outside the box, if you will,” he said. “People really love the product, and they feel good about it.”
And Kristy and Coulter’s prolific blog, offering a behind-the-scenes look at the care and keeping of their popcorn company, has been an added bonus.
“They’re really generous with what they’ve learned,” Lee said. “I think they’ve got a lot of respect out there in the local food business.”
Lee said he thinks Quinn has the potential to be a national brand in the future. Kristy said she hopes so, too — but added that they’re trying to take things at a steady pace right now.
“It’s crazy,” she said. “It’s really fun, but it’s definitely non-stop working.”
And as for Quinn, the baby?
“He understands what it is,” Kristy said with a laugh. “He sees our popcorn tossed around — he goes, ‘popcorn, popcorn!’ but I think it’ll be a couple more years before he can have it.”
Quinn will be at a Kickstarter panel, hosted by Scott Kirsner of the Boston Globe, on April 19 at Cambridge’s Venture Cafe.