Popping Potential: Profit from America's Popcorn Passion

Popcorn Passion

An archeological discovery made in 2012 indicates that even Peruvian cavemen enjoyed the simple, undeniable appeal of popcorn. Meanwhile, many people continue to indulge the disproven myth that the Pilgrims were offered popcorn by the Native Americans at the first Thanksgiving. While that may not be true, the fact that Americans consume more than 17 billion quarts of popcorn annually indicates a deep-seated addiction to the stuff. The United States leads the world in both its production and its consumption.1

How It Pops

Popcorn (Zea mays), like all other types of corn, consists of a hull or pericarp, embryo plant, and the starchy interior or endosperm. Unlike other corn varieties, however, these kernels will pop when stored correctly and heated well enough.

When kernels that have reached 13.5 to 14 percent moisture become heated, the pressure causes the kernel to essentially turn inside-out. The result depends on which of two varieties you have: butterfly or mushroom popcorn kernels.

The Best Popcorn Kernels for Your Purpose

Butterfly popcorn's separated, tender puffs are most common for standard salt and butter flavors because the increased surface area of the irregular shapes holds those flavors well. The mushroom type's toughness makes it hold up well to confectionary applications. Its round shape and chewy consistency allows it to hold sugary, syrupy coating better than butterfly-shaped popcorn.

For best results, mushroom popcorn should be cooked at a higher temperature than butterfly popcorn, and it will yield more popcorn if it is hot air popped.

Unpopped kernels occur when there isn't enough moisture inside the kernel. If you notice a lot of these showing up in your batches, you can solve the issue by putting the un-popped corn into an airtight container with a small bit of water. Let it sit overnight, then try popping it again. If you keep popcorn in a cool, dry location, it can be stored indefinitely, making it an ideal staple food.2

Popcorn's Past

Archaeologists have determined that people have been enjoying popcorn for thousands of years. In the beginning, it is believed that early enthusiasts would put the kernels in hot sand and wait for it to pop. Later, special earthenware pots were made to pop the corn, and some groups were known to wrap the corn cobs in plant leaves before placing them over a fire. 1

When Charles Cretor invented the first steam-powered popcorn maker in 1885, it wasn't long until vendors were popping up everywhere to sell their treats in circuses and fairs. Early on, they would also sell it on street corners, but with films being silent and theaters trying to recreate their opulent predecessors with fancy carpets and draperies, movie theater owners were not eager to have popcorn concessions available to their patrons. Street vendors saw this as an opportunity and many placed their carts near movie theater entrances.

When silent films gave way to "talkies" around 1927, the customer base broadened because moviegoers no longer had to be literate to enjoy the films. With the influx of new customers, the larger clientele created greater potential for profit. Some scholars attribute the survival of many movie theaters during the Great Depression to popcorn sales. The movies were a relatively cheap diversion, and popcorn was a snack nearly everyone could afford.

Popcorn was solidified as the go-to theater snack during WWII, when sweet snacks like candy and soda were harder to come by due to sugar rations. By 1945, it was estimated that more than half of the popcorn that was consumed in America was enjoyed at the movies.3

Popcorn Today

With more consumers focused on choosing snacks that promote good heath, popcorn is proving to be one of the most wholesome snacks available. A cup-and-a-half of popcorn has 67 percent as much iron and an equal amount of calcium as the same amount of beef. A 1.5-ounce serving offers the same energy as two eggs, and when it's unbuttered it has fewer calories than half a medium grapefruit. Being a whole grain means the hulls are equivalent to bran flakes and whole wheat toast when it comes to fiber.

For standard popping, popcorn can be made even healthier by using healthier oils like canola and sunflower. When popped with an air popper, you can't beat popcorn's health benefits. With very few ingredients, you can have a tasty, healthy snack in no time.

While there's no denying the health benefits of popcorn, sometimes you just want an indulgent treat. Caramel corn and kettle corn are confectionary options that, while high in calorie count, offer a wonderfully sweet and salty combination that most people find satisfying. In addition, even with many studies and news reports highlighting the negative effects of movie popcorn, moviegoers still bought roughly 1.7 million pounds of theater popcorn last year. Regardless of the high calorie count and detrimental effects of the oils and toppings, this treat continues to sell at impressive rates.4

Popcorn Profit Margin

If you want to offer a healthy option or one that's more decadent, the profitability of popcorn is undeniable. At movies, arenas and other similar venues, the margin can be as much as 900 percent. Once the initial investment of the equipment is made, you're really only looking at a few cents' worth of corn, salt, and oil. Add a few more cents for packaging, and you're set.

You can even increase that number by offering kettle and caramel corn, which only costs a few more cents to make per serving. You can even add almonds, cashews, or pecans for extra crunch and flavor. These varieties are especially popular at fairs, carnivals, and festivals where foot traffic is good and the expectation for indulgent snacks is high. For all these reasons, the popcorn business is a very lucrative one, especially when considering return on investment and simplicity of operation.5

  1. Dell'Amore, Christine. "Ancient Popcorn Found-Made 2,000 Years Earlier Than Thought in Peru" Nationalgeographic.com. Accessed 16 March 2015.
  2. "Popcorn." Wikipedia.com. Accessed 16 March 2015.
  3. Geiling, Natasha. "Why Do We Eat Popcorn at the Movies?" Smithsonian.com. Accessed 16 March 2015.
  4. "49 Mouth-Watering Facts About Popcorn." Randomhistory.com. Accessed 16 March 2015.
  5. "America's Biggest Rip-Offs." money.cnn.com. Accessed 16 March 2015.