Pass the Popcorn

The ’80s were a heady time for the American economy, the era of Gordon Gekko and his real-people Wall Street counterparts. In our current era — the aughts into the teens — the Gordons & Co. are about as popular as a Toyota at an auto-safety convention.

But there’s one thing the two eras have in common: popcorn. Not movie-theater popcorn, not microwave popcorn, but popcorn from popcorn shops, with about as many crazy flavors as you can imagine.

Carlton Dyer opened his shop, Dyer’s Chicago-Style Gourmet Popcorn, at 4075 S. Durango Drive, after losing his job of 18 years as a hotel doorman.

“It was my wife’s idea,” Dyer said. “She was born in Chicago. That’s the culture in their city. She was raised on this popcorn, in particular the caramel and cheese mix. That’s considered the Chicago style.”

“Chicago is known for three food items: pizza, hot dogs and popcorn,” concurred Gary Goodwin, vice president of sales for the aptly named Popcorn Chicago, which has been open for four years at the Stratosphere, 2000 Las Vegas Blvd. South, and has affiliated outlets at Circus Circus, 2800 Las Vegas Blvd. South, and on the Fremont Street Experience. The popcorn tradition, he said, dates to the Cretors wagons that popped up in Chicago in the late 1800s.

Goodwin confirmed that caramel-cheese is the classic Chicago corn, but said he’s not sure how the sweet-salty mix came about. At any rate, his Stratosphere shop creates 27 flavors of popcorn, using three different types of corn (which means that popcorn is more complex than you may think). The standard movie-theater popcorn, known as butterfly, is used for cheese corn because it’s hardy. A sweeter butterfly is used for kettle corn, and a hybrid with no hulls and no burrs called mushroom is used for caramel corn.

The most popular flavors, Goodwin said, are double cheddar, Chicago-style, caramel and jalapeno-cheddar. Six of the flavors are chocolate-drizzled, including rocky road and chocolate-coffee.

Dyer’s, which opened in May 2009, has 14 flavors daily, with banana among the most popular, along with white chocolate and caramel-and-cheese.

Popcorn Girl, 8550 W. Charleston Blvd., opened during the holiday season. Owner Laurie Sabol said the loaded baked potato flavor (with bacon bits, sour cream, chives and cheddar), Southwest hot wings and lemon meringue pie (with white chocolate, lemon and graham-cracker crumbs) are the big sellers. Among the more unusual are dill pickle, cinnamon toast, and macaroni and cheese.

Pop Stop at the Galleria at Sunset mall, 1300 W. Sunset Road in Henderson, is the newest kid on the block, opening in March. It currently offers kettle corn (the most popular), buttered (the next most popular), ranch and cheddar.

“Flavored is not a real big seller,” said owner Bob Chmura. “We started with a whole bunch, and they’re the only ones that survive.” But sales, he said, are increasing by the week.

Lon Ross, owner of Fun City Popcorn, a local distributor of equipment and supplies, said compared to the ’80s, today’s flavor choices are more traditional, such as caramel.

“You’re always going to find the chocolate drizzles,” Ross said. “You’re always going to find the gimmicky flavors of throwing something strange in. They tend to be gimmicks and fads; no one makes it a staple.”

So what’s driving the resurgence? What’s the appeal of popcorn?

“Definitely the odor,” Chmura said. “As soon as we start cooking up the kettle corn, it’s like a magic finger that goes out and hooks somebody by the nostrils and pulls them in.”

“There’s always that sweet and salty appeal and you don’t find that as much in traditional candy,” Ross said. “There is that freshness, that perceived freshness. When you go into a popcorn store, you know it’s fresh; it’s not coming out of a box or wrapper. And it’s a relatively inexpensive indulgence. Whether you have a job or not, you’ll spring for the two bucks for a bag of popcorn.”

“I think people want an affordable snack that tastes really good that they know is really fresh,” Sabol said. “I felt it was the right time to have a store like this because people who really can’t afford a lot can eat a good snack that was just made.”

And Dyer pointed out the nostalgia factor, particularly among those from the Midwest, where corn is king.

“It reminds them of back in the day, when they went to the carnivals,” he said. “In times like this, you need to reminisce on the good old days.”

Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@ or 702-383-0474.

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