Story by Rita Savard | Photos by Nancy Ho
It’s Saturday afternoon and along the bustling indoor retail strip at Mill No. 5, a sweet smell seemingly stretches out and curls its invisible fingers, pulling all passersby in. Nearing the source of this yummy scent, the power of memory starts to take hold — flashbacks to summer nights at the drive-in, baseball games and strolling on the boardwalk.
Through an unmarked doorway, the smell lingers in a bright and lofty kitchen manned by Robert and Heather Berlin. Their well-oiled operation looks like a modern-day apothecary, equipped with fragrant herbs, spices and special elixirs from bourbon and vanilla to locally made hot sauce and marshmallows.
Call them chefs, magicians or mad scientists, but anyway you look at it the popcorn purveyors of Corn and Co. are pushing the envelope on creative snacking.
“We like to think of it as popcorn reborn,” says Robert Berlin, who co-founded the company with his wife, Heather, and brother Steven Berlin.
“Even though we’re just a popcorn company, we know the universe is an ever expanding place,” Robert explains. “With 154 different flavors there are millions of different combinations to give the lucky snacker exactly what they want.”
According to the Popcorn Board, Americans consume 16 billion quarts of popped corn annually. Corn and Co. is not only cornering this consumer market, they’re hellbent on changing the way it eats an American snack classic.
Coconut curry. Fried chicken and gravy. Sweet Thai chili. White Russian. Strawberry cheesecake. The works, a combination of mustard, ketchup, dill pickle, cheddar cheese, salt and vinegar. Name your craving and Corn and Co. will pop it. But what makes this local popcorn company different — besides their endless flavor options — is that what they put in each bag is actually good for you.
Corn and Co. kernels are GMO free, popped only in healthy coconut or sunflower oils and sans all that synthetic butter that typically makes movie theater popcorn a dieting nightmare.
“We see it as a super food,” Robert says. “A bag of Corn and Co. is an anytime snack, and that includes a post-workout pick-me-up or whenever you need an added jolt of energy.”
Prior to opening their first retail space in the Burlington Mall on Black Friday in 2012, Robert and Heather both worked in real estate in Big Sky, Montana. Robert developed and built dream homes while Heather expertly commandeered marketing and sales.
The couple relocated to the area, where Heather grew up — she hails from Concord — and began working on a business plan for Corn and Co. They were drawn to Lowell’s history, and fell in love with the vision for Mill No. 5, a burgeoning retail, arts and entertainment hub housed inside an 1873 textile factory. It’s where they set up the company’s production headquarters.
“Before we sold custom homes that, much like our popcorn, were artfully crafted with love and lots of attention to detail,” Robert says. “The finished product in real estate took a long time in the making. With popcorn, you see a smiling face pretty much right after someone puts it in their mouth, and then you hear a ‘thank you.’ For us, that immediate gratification is just awesome.”
Since opening two years ago, the company has gone from producing 2.5 gallons per hour to pumping out 250 gallons per hour in its Lowell kitchen.
Robert and Heather have popped for everybody from actor Michael J. Fox to actress Eliza Dushku, to the Phanton Gourment and the Boston Red Sox, who took them on as the official popcorn supplier for Fenway Park this past summer.
In addition to three brick and mortar locations, the crew is also slated to sell its tasty product at Party City locations in early 2015.
Newly added to their ever-expanding flavor arsenal are some seasonal treats including stuffing, pumpkin pie, egg nog, candy cane, a menorah mix that’s a combo of vanilla cream and blue raspberry, and, of course, a champagne flavor for New Year’s.
Current best sellers are Windy City, a sweet and savory pairing of caramel and cheddar, and Double Rainbow, blending cherry, orange, lemon, green apple, blue raspberry and grape.
But the popcornologists say there is no creation too weird or wacky for them to craft.
“Lowell has a history of industry, production and progress,” Robert says. “We like to see ourselves as very much a part of that history going forward.”
Then just for a minute, the pony-tailed popcorn chef ponders the future and smiles.
“Will Lowell ever be known as a popcorn town, like it was once Prince Spaghettiville?” he asks.
You never know. Just like Corn and Co.’s flavors, the possibilities are endless.
Corn and Co. | 250 Jackson St., 4th Flr. At Mill No. 5, Lowell | 617-420-2311