When I met with Michael Stern and Brett Striker about their new popcorn company Maddy & Maize, I was content to chat with them about the business and, if I was lucky, get to sample some of the popcorn.
I got to sample some popcorn. And I’m still thinking about it.
Having lived in Chicago, and visited there countless times before that, Garrett’s popcorn is one the places to stop. In their old Michigan Avenue location, their lines were so long to get in that, as legend has it, a Starbucks that was next door to Garrett’s moved because the lines were always blocking the door.
Maddy & Maize may be better for two reasons: variety and ingredients.
“You walk into Garrett’s and they have their caramel, their cheese, their caramel with nuts and that’s the gold-standard of gourmet popcorn,” said co-founder Michael Stern, father of Maddy for whom the company is named. “But you see these other companies that are coming out with flavors that are more appealing and on the savory side because they want people continuously coming back. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Stern and Striker have done more than talk about a savory side. They have done pulled it off with delicious Bourbon Barbecue and Smoky Chipotle. The latter brought some heat – probably not a lot (or any) for most people, but my taste buds are weak when it comes to that. And yet I woke up the morning after I tried it wanting more.
“We really study flavor trends and smoky flavors are on the rise,” Striker said, adding that their Coconut Curry popcorn is probably his favorite at the moment. I tried that one too, and despite not really liking either coconut or curry, I really liked how those flavors paired with the popcorn.
“I’d say the one that people grew into is our Porcini Mushroom, Rosemary and Olive Oil,” Stern said. “At the last event it was our most popular flavor hands down.
Said Striker: “And it has trended towards our most popular flavor.”
Flavors like Kettle Corn and Cinnamon Sugar are very good, and would happily eat a lot more of it if offered. But for me, the out-of-the-box flavors are far more interesting. Part of that comes from the quality of the ingredients.
Stern and Striker are using organic, fair-trade chocolate in their Mint-Chocolate Chip, non-GMO popping corn, organic cheese, no artificial colors, flavors or dyes, and no high-fructose corn syrup.
“It took us about a year and a half to get our caramel perfected because we don’t want any high-fructose corn syrup so we put in tapioca syrup instead and it makes it lighter,” Striker said.
And he’s right: it is lighter. You also don’t get that caramel-stuck-in-your-teeth thing either. Which may or may not be your thing.
“We really want to separate ourselves with unique flavors. Our Lemon Raspberry Wedding Cake is extremely popular. It’s flavored with real raspberries that have been freeze-dried and our lemon comes from lemon oil.”
Their Key Lime Pie is flavored with lime oil and graham cracker crumbs. The White Cheddar has organic white cheddar cheese. The “sprinkles” in the Birthday Cake are made from beet juice and annatto to make red and orange. In other words, all the flavors come from real ingredients.
“On our labels, we’ve really increased the size of our ingredient statement because we want people to take notice of it,” Striker said. “It’s short. You’re not going to look at it and wonder ‘What is this?'”
Stern and Striker are also trying to use as many locally-sourced ingredients as possible. All of their popcorn is single-origin sourced from Grubb Family Farms in Iowa – it’s not Minnesota, but it met two of their requirements: They could provide a butterfly seed and a mushroom seed, and they were one of the only ones who could do non-GMO popcorn. The s sunflower oil is sourced from Smude’s in Northern Minnesota. They are looking for local cheese and honey suppliers as well.
“We have a dedicated plot of land (at Grubb), and they’ll be our partner until we hit a certain threshold and need to go somewhere else,” Stern said. “But they have been great to work with.”
Stern said that having an 11-month-old daughter helped drive them to make a healthier product.
“As a new parent, you really start to look at these types of things is a much different light,” he said. “There is so much junk out there and it’s only getting worse.”
Said Striker: “We saw something: That we can take one of our favorite snacks and make it better. We want to be extremely transparent about what’s in the ingredients. We want to feel good that we are providing the absolute best product we can. And we spend more money on better ingredients to do that, but it tastes better.”