Popcorn is a simple food, and a relatively healthy snack.

But Mark Wieder of The Pop’d Shop, a new store in downtown Lancaster that sells a plethora of popcorn products, says there’s another plus that might help explain the treat’s popularity.

Popcorn, he says, “is a perfect flavor conduit.”

That means you can coat it with buttery caramel, or spices with a smoky Sriracha burn, or even just a sprinkling of salt, and you’ll find an audience for the crunchy goodness.

Plus, it’s a snack that’s popular enough to support not just one, but a pair of holidays.

Last Saturday was National Popcorn Day; Popcorn Lover’s Day will be marked on March 14 this year.

In an area that’s home to Reist Popcorn Co., the easternmost popcorn processor in America and the source of millions of pounds of popcorn annually, there are numerous places to find freshly popped kernels, either “all natural” or doctored up with flavors.

And the pop-ularity of this old-fashioned snack is only growing.

Going gourmet

Matt Tamulis may have one of the sweeter jobs in Lititz — and, considering the town’s long history with chocolate, that’s saying something.

On one damp January morning, visitors entering Sweet Legacy Gourmet, the shop he runs at 55 E. Main St., Lititz, with wife Amy, were greeted with the scent of warm vanilla and sugar. On a wide marble slab, seven pounds of caramel popcorn were slowly cooling, a sweet exterior hardening around fluffy, freshly popped corn.

In the back, Matt Tamulis was getting ready to add a full pound of butter to a giant copper kettle — a kettle “rescued,” Amy Tamulis says, from an old Hersheypark attraction. Already in the kettle: white and brown sugar, melted over a flame, to which Matt Tamulis would add vanilla, a little corn syrup, the butter and a tiny pinch of baking soda to fluff it all up.

Stirring constantly until the mix hit exactly the right temperature, Matt Tamulis doused the flame under the kettle and reached for a bucket of corn popped just that morning. With two paddles, he gently folded the popcorn into the caramel, then hefted the new caramel corn batch out to the marble-topped table to spread and cool.

The Tamulises are the third generation to run Amy’s family business, formerly Lennon’s Fudge, and added caramel corn and other sweet treats to the traditional fudge-and-cookies lineup.

People’s tastes change, Amy Tamulis observes, but what hasn’t changed is an appreciation for small-batch, handmade foods.

They knew the caramel corn would sell, Amy Tamulis says — and, indeed, it is one of their top products — just as they knew Lititz, with its mix of residents, visitors and an active events calendar, would be the perfect location for the shop they opened almost two years ago.

Just down the street, after all, is Wilbur Chocolate, where Sweet Legacy gets all the milk, dark and white chocolate it drizzles on top of some caramel corn batches.

Popcorn, Matt Tamulis says, is an old-fashioned treat that everyone’s familiar with. That allows Sweet Legacy to resurrect “kind of a lost art, and keep these family recipes alive ... carry on the traditions.”

The bigger picture

That old-fashioned tradition is what lured Wieder, of The Pop’d Shop, to popcorn, too, though he uses the fluffy snack as the gateway for ideas like entrepreneurship, job training and conversations about health and “eating local.”

After three years in Harrisburg, Wieder closed that location and opened his new Pop’d Shop at 348 N. Queen St. in late 2018. Along with soda pop, ice pops and “poptoast,” Pop’d’s main attraction is — you guessed it —popcorn.

“Corn itself is the world’s most prolific grain,” Wieder says, (1.3 billion metric tons worldwide in 2017-18, according to Statista), “so there’s no better way to have the conversation about food than through that.

“Popcorn is simple and delicious, and we can just have so many different conversations,” he adds, whether “that’s about obesity (or) about the local food movement, and we can do that” with customers.

Wieder, a former attorney, opened his original Pop’d in Harrisburg and used that shop as a way to boost young teens’ employment skills, nurture other entrepreneurs and future business owners and provide some mutual support to other business ventures. “I’m a former attorney, now a popcorn popper and business owner,” he says, “so I know what it’s like to go through a career change.”

He hopes Lancaster’s Pop’d Shop eventually fills the same community role.

That means sourcing popcorn on the cob from Dauphin County, as well as some loose-kernel popcorn from Lancaster County. It means building ties to the previously mentioned Reist Popcorn Co. in Mount Joy.

And, Wieder says, it means popping corn in the most healthy ways.

“The healthiest ways are air-pop or stove-top,” he says. “At the shop, we use heart-healthy canola oil (because it can) withstand high cooking temperatures, it’s a neutral flavor and there aren’t a lot of food allergies” associated with it.

Using hot oil to pop the kernel, Wieder says, is referred to as a “wet pop,” the technique he prefers.

“There’s a different taste and mouth-feel (between wet-pop and the air-popped, or “dry pop” popcorn),” he says. “Having some oil is going to add a little bit more depth.”

He likens the taste of air-popped popcorn to drinking a tannin-heavy wine, “and it’s like, I need something more in my mouth.”

Wieder is, he says, a purist when it comes to popcorn — just a little sea salt is all he usually adds, he says — but one of The Pop’d Shop’s best-sellers is a bit more involved: a vegan caramel.