Everybody in America has a popcorn story of their own, whether it’s a first kiss at the movies or watching kernels explode like fireworks in the kitchen as a kid. For Wally and Kathy Arnold, it started with a passion for caramel corn out of a little storefront in Universal City 15 years ago when they founded Popcornopolis.
Like an unattended container of Jiffy Pop on the stove, the company's wide range of gourmet flavors exploded into a multimillion-dollar family business with product in theaters, sports venues and stores across the country. Famous flavors include Zebra (caramel popcorn drizzled with dark and white chocolate), Cinnamon Toast, Key Lime Pie and Red Velvet.
In celebration of National Popcorn Day on Saturday, Jan. 19, L.A. Weekly got an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the company’s 150,000-square-foot production facility in Vernon, the chance to cook up a batch of our own Zebra corn and a taste of the company's latest creation: Unicorn.
The brainchild of senior product developer Laura Cerny, Unicorn is a fruit-flavored mix of colorful mushroom popcorn drizzled with a lemon topping that is an all-natural flavor cross between Trix and Froot Loops cereals.
Packaged in a pink mini version of their signature cellophane cones, Unicorn samples will be rolled out in Costco stores next month in time for Valentine’s Day. A Cal Poly San Luis Obispo food science graduate, Cerny is a STEM nerd who is forever trying to conjure up new sweet and savory combinations.
The Popcornopolis test kitchen currently is experimenting with flavors including chili lime, turmeric, smoked salt and ranch.
“People love spicy,” says Phil Fox, food chemist, chef and VP of product development. “So we’re always trying to come up with new flavors. Some work and some don’t. Dill pickle was a little polarizing.”
He also loves making sweet and salty Umami Pop. “Umami is that savory nuance you get in cheeses and broth and even tomatoes,” says the graduate of Chicago's Le Cordon Bleu. “So at home, I use nutritional yeast, smoked paprika, garlic and black pepper. It’s my go-to flavor at home.”
Together with four of their five sons, the Arnolds pop nearly 20 million pounds of American-grown popcorn every year, produced in small batches, all non-GMO, in mushroom and butterfly varieties. The mushroom is sturdier, with a larger surface that holds up to big toppings and flavors like caramel, kettle corn and cheddar cheese, whereas the delicate butterfly is used for the lighter Nearly Naked version.
The whole family is in the facility every day, working in various capacities. Wally runs the marketing and development end of things and Kathy supervises everything that goes on in the factory, while the boys have done everything including sweep the floors.
“Most importantly we believe in high-quality ingredients,” Wally tells L.A. Weekly. “No preservatives. Everything in this factory is gluten-free. We focused on those ingredients 17 years ago when we started experimenting and weren’t going to use anything we couldn’t pronounce. None of that has changed. There’s nothing artificial about our Unicorn.”
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In addition to a low turnover and high commitment with employees, the Arnolds contribute their success to hands-on involvement, a quality product and the power of a free sample. They’ve given out 150 million samples in the last 15 years.
“We believe in our hearts that popcorn should put a smile on everyone’s face,” Wally says. “We want it to taste exactly as it did with your first bite the first time around."
Click here for a tour and some special deals for National Popcorn Day.