By Daniel Axelrod The Times Herald-Record, Middletown, N.Y.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) With two-and-half grams of fat, and a calorie range between 90 and 120, "PopCorners" has become a hit with people watching their weight who don't want to sacrifice taste. The story of how the brand developed is pretty interesting. (And good "food for thought" for other budding food entrepreneurs)
It's not peanuts, popcorn or cookies that JetBlue Airways fliers most often reach for.
It's Middletown's own PopCorners -- a puffed corn chip with a distinct texture that's both crunchy and chewy, said Paul Nardone, CEO of the chip's maker, BFY Brands.
PopCorners' appeal to JetBlue fliers is just one reason for the company's explosive growth, including adding 37,500 square feet of Town of Wallkill distribution space this summer, and hiring up to 125 more employees by year's end.
Supermarkets and other vendors are snapping up the snack, too, making it America's fastest-growing chip in the "better-for-you" or healthy food category, which includes brands such as Stacy's, Skinny Pop, Kettle, Sensible Portions and Angies, according to the tracking firm Nielsen.
PopCorners' grocery store sales alone totaled $7.87 million for the 12-week period that concluded at the end of August, up 44 percent from the same period last year, Nielsen data show.
Customers have been chomping the local company's chips at record rates since its 2009 creation, but the brand took a big leap forward when JetBlue began serving it to fliers in 2011.
"PopCorners has been instrumental in helping us raise the bar when it comes to snacking at 35,000 feet," said Mariya Stoyanova, JetBlue's head of product development. "They are so popular onboard, that, on average, we go through about 800,000 bags of PopCorners per month."
Though PopCorners weren't invented till 2009, the chip's origins date to 1998.
That's when entrepreneur Zeke Alenick founded Ideal Snacks in Liberty to contract manufacture healthy popped snacks.
In 2010, Alenick also started Medora Snacks, a sister company and the maker of PopCorners in Middletown.
Alenick's early clients included Kellogg's and Weight Watchers.
But his big crunchy break came in 2009. That's when engineer Steven Van Poucke, still an executive overseeing PopCorners, invented the proprietary machine that pops corn into a chip shape.
In 2015, Permira, a global private equity fund, scooped up Ideal Snacks and Medora and merged them under the name BFY, or Better For You Brands.
More investment, wider distribution and more flavors have upped sales since then.
Original varieties, like Kettle Corn, Sea Salt and White Cheddar, are still the biggest sellers. But newer choices, including Spicy Queso and Jalapeno Cheddar, are tickling taste buds, too.
A painstaking transition in recent years, with help from corn processor Bunge, to non-genetically-modified corn has added to PopCorners' health appeal.
Rail cars of milled corn, produced from 60 family farms in Nebraska, roll up daily behind PopCorners' Middletown plant.
"Three things make PopCorners so popular," said Nardone, BFY Brands' CEO.
"First and foremost is taste; consumers get fanatical about it. Second is texture. It has a unique crunch that's a little fluffy but very crispy; and then there's the health halo. It has the best nutrition profile in its snack category."
PopCorners already dominate Northeast supermarkets, said Nardone, who sees room for more sales through wider grocery store distribution across the country.
This year, BFY Brands expects to surpass $100 million in net sales, up 50 percent since 2015.
All the recent growth means the company plans to add up to 100 workers to its 225-person Middletown plant and 25 more at the firm's 300-worker Liberty facility.
BFY Brands also recently leased space at 45 Turner Drive from the Frassetto Companies' recent on-spec development in the Town of Wallkill, and a new truck lot across from PopCorners' Middletown factory at 79 Industrial Way.
"A nationally recognized Orange County company is thriving and growing and adding jobs -- it's economic development at its best," said Maureen Halahan, president and CEO of the Orange County Partnership, a Goshen nonprofit that promotes economic development. "PopCorners are resonating with people because they're guilt-free snacking."
Indeed, with two-and-half grams of fat, and a calorie range between 90 and 120, PopCorners is far less fattening than many other snacks, Nardone said.
Consumers often struggle to identify healthy food, said Kelly Springer, founder of the Syracuse-area nutrition company Kelly's Choice, which advises schools, workplaces and sports teams.
"We put these health halos around these types of foods that really aren't that good for us," Springer said. But with just a few simple ingredients, including spices, oil and corn, "PopCorners bring us back to real food, not faux healthy food."