By Tom Cherveny
West Central Tribune, Willmar, Minn.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet the entrepreneurs who have developed low-cost, mirrored reflectors that focus sunlight on the kettles in which they pop their specialty solar-popped popcorn. The corn is popped in safflower oil, which lends something of a buttery flavor to the corn.
It’s estimated that one of every three rows of corn raised in western Minnesota is exported overseas.
Some of those rows on Richard and Rachel Quenemoen’s farm in Lac qui Parle County are now devoted to raising popcorn. It is shipped for sale in New York City.
Their son Bjorn Quenemoen and business partner Jamie O’Shea harness the power of the sun to pop the Lac qui Parle County-grown popcorn. They flavor it with a nutritional yeast introduced to Quenemoen by his best friend’s parents while he was growing up on the family farm near Dawson.
They call it BjornQorn. Sales have nearly doubled in each of the past three years since the entrepreneurs launched their venture. BjornQorn is available at stores in New York City and a route extending to the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, along with locations in Connecticut, New Jersey, North Carolina, California, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota (Surdyk’s in Minneapolis).
Store owners tell Quenemoen that their customers keep coming back for more, many saying they are addicted to it.
“We are happy to feed their addictions,” laughed Quenomoen when reached at his home in Brooklyn.
Quenomoen dreamed up the idea of starting a popcorn business on his long drives on Minnesota Highway 7 from the family farm to the airport in the Twin Cities, which brought him to Bard College in upstate New York. Quenomoen and O’Shea met while attending Bard.
Quenomoen was known by his college friends for the flavorful popcorn he frequently popped. Quenomoen said popping a batch of popcorn on a Sunday evening was a family tradition when he grew up. It was not so much of a tradition among his new East Coast friends, but they loved his popcorn. He became known for his “Bjorn corn,” he explained.
His friend O’Shea was a technology artist looking to make something tactile with his technology, Quenomoen said. Aware of his friend’s popcorn business aspirations, O’Shea suggested a joint venture.
That venture is found today on a farm in upstate New York. There, O’Shea has developed low-cost, mirrored reflectors that focus sunlight on the kettles in which they pop BjornCorn every month of the year. The corn is popped in safflower oil, which lends something of a buttery flavor to the corn, Quenemoen said.
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The idea of flavoring the popcorn with nutritional yeast came originally from rural Dawson artists Lucy and Gene Tokheim, parents of Quenemoen’s best friend, Luke. The inactive yeast naturally adds vitamins and protein, and it is fortified with B vitamins.
Quenomoen has put a few twists on the recipe since his college days. And by all accounts, it’s the flavor that is driving sales of the product in New York specialty stores. “(The flavor) is what has really pushed this forward,” he said.
Solar power matters too. Quenomoen said news stories about the solar aspect of the business were often the talking point that made it possible for the business partners to get packages of their popcorn on the shelves of New York City businesses. Now the sales are growing organically, he said, with stores approaching them to carry it.
The two Bard graduates, both age 36, are now able to devote themselves full time to this enterprise. The growth in sales has reached the point that their solar-thermal production operation is at capacity, Quenemoen said.
It has brought them to a pivot point in the business. “We want the consistency of solar electric,” he said.
With the drop in costs for solar panels, they are looking at using panels to produce electric heat for cooking in place of the solar thermal system.
All the same, they will continue to make the most of the low-cost, solar thermal technology system they use to cook up BjornQorn. They are working to develop a desalination system with the idea that the low-cost technology could help people in less developed areas of the world.
There is also change coming on the Quenemoen farm, where the popcorn crop was just harvested. Quenemoen said his father is planning to retire after 43 years of full-time farming. Neighbor Bruce Strand will raise next year’s crop of BjornQorn on the Quenemoen farmland.
Quenemoen said the business partners hope to see the business grow, and are working at developing markets in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
BjornQorn is about as healthy a snack food as is possible, Quenemoen said, adding that many of their repeat customers consider it a staple in their households.
Of course, he loves both its flavor and healthy aspects.
“Glad I don’t make potato chips,” he said, laughing. “I’d have to sample a lot. I can feel OK at the end of the day when it is popcorn.”