Seattle's latest export: The Starbucks of popcorn
America's love affair with exotic foodstuffs is fickle. Need I remind you that Starbucks, 40 years ago, was considered exotic? A traditional Jewish deli on Mercer Island, Stopsky's, just announced it is shutting down because, the owner admits, he hasn't found that sweet spot where he can make money. And, shake your head, if a Jewish deli can't succeed on Mercer Island, what hope is there for Seattle's other food niches?
As it turns out, gourmet popcorn, with a relatively low barrier to entry, is poised to be the next big thing. And one of its leading practitioners — KuKuRuZa — is based right here in Seattle. Headquartered in the International District, with a thriving store in the heart of downtown, it's having its greatest success in Japan, of all places.
Howzat? Fashion is part of the explanation; novelty is another. The Japanese have long been impressed by American (and French) consumer trends, but popcorn? Well, why not? It's reasonably exotic, it's portable, doesn't require expensive equipment and it tastes good. And the name, KuKuRuZa, even sounds Japanese (though it's not).
The word is actually Russian for “maize,” though KuKuRuZa's corn comes from Nebraska. A “mushroom” variety that looks like kernel corn candies, it puffs up beautifully when air-popped at the company commissary. There's also that movie-theater version, which requires an all-white “butterfly” strain that breaks open when it pops to better absorb the brown butter.
Behind the surge of popularity for gourmet popcorn is a boyish 28-year-old Magnolia resident named Grant Jones. A philosophy major at UW, Jones (and his wife, Ashley) had run Popcorn Pavillion at Bellevue Square for three years when a downtown competitor, Robert Hicks, approached him with the offer to sell his store, called KuKuRuZa. (Hicks's wife, Laura, had come up with the name.)
Jones, at right, is the current owner of KuKuRuZa. Image: Ronald Holden
For a time, Jones ran two separate, stand-alone popcorn outfits before deciding that KuKuRuZa had better potential. And with the enthusiasm of a puppy, Jones began expanding and franchising his concept.
“It was a challenge when we started,” Jones recalls. “We were all inexperienced, but we were young and scrappy.”
First locally (Ballard), then by franchising internationally (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Japan), Jones began expanding. Last month, the company's master franchisee for Japan opened its second store in a Tokyo suburb. ”The demand for our product is so high,” Jones notes, “that the average wait at the new store is just over two hours.”
This is in the Mitsui Outlet Park, across the bay from Tokyo. In hot weather, KuKuRuZa hands out fans to patrons standing in line, and also offers tickets with a specific time to return. Once customers get into the store (two at a time), they will often buy for a larger group.
KuKuRuZa is sold by volume, not weight, and a one-gallon bag runs $16. A four-flavor variety pack will set you back $39. At the corner of Third & Pike, tourists wander in for samples and walk out with a “flight pack” of seven flavors for $19 or a $48, two-gallon gift tin.
The small team at headquarters tries to develop a new flavor every month. Right now, it's lavender lemonade, but the backlist (to use a publishing term) has some 75 titles. Pumpkin Spice Pecan turns up, as you might expect, once a year. The most popular flavor, around the world, is Hawaiian Sea Salt.
Jones' franchise partners often have food-service experience. In Japan, it's actually an advertising company that also runs a donut franchise and a chain of ten stores that sell Seattle-themed soups and chowders. Their popcorn business is starting with only ten of KuKuRuZa's core flavors, but the most popular mirror those in the U.S.: Hawaiian Sea Salt and Classic Caramel.
Providing his franchisees with the precise Hawaiian pink rock salt is one of the few items that Jones exports from the U.S. In return, the Japanese have come up with a one-gallon fabric bag that's quite popular, reducing the need to ship or store bulky tins.
The only wholesaling KuKuRuZa does is through Made In Washington stores, and then just one flavor (a chocolate-and-vanilla drizzle called Tuxedo), sold in a one-quart container. On its own website, you can order some 20 flavors, half sweet, half salty, from an espresso-dusted Seattle to that chocolate-drizzled Tuxedo to a Maple Bacon or a Buffalo Bleu Cheese. The Brown Butter & Sea Salt tastes like old-fashioned movie theater popcorn.
You may scoff, but in Japan, let me remind you, they stand in line for two hours just to get in the door. And remember, they laughed at Gordon Bowker, too, when he talked about espresso. Not even Howard Schultz believed him at first.