The corner of Church and Cherry Streets in downtown Burlington is a treat utopia: It's the site of Paul Buschner's A-Maize-ing Kettle Korn. There -- and at local fairs and other events -- the Colchester resident pops more than three tons of corn each year. An IBM employee for two decades, Buschner, now 45, split in 2001 to become the colonel of corn. He's usually found inside his cart on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, but plans to stay open daily during the holiday season, weather permitting. Seven Days buttered him up for an interview.
SEVEN DAYS: How did you get into selling kettle corn?
PAUL BUSCHNER: I love popcorn! Do you know the book, Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow? That was one of the inspirations. One of the things I put in my business plan was making people happy. When was the last time you came to work and someone jumped up and down and clapped their hands and said, "Sarah, it's so good to see you!" It happens to me all the time out here. People are overjoyed to get this product.
SD: Do you get any competition from Ben & Jerry's?
PB: Yeah, you know. We're both offering a sweet treat, but I have an advantage because you can't preserve an ice cream cone. And popcorn is the fastest-growing snack food -- sales of popcorn are booming.
SD: Why is that?
PB: It's a relatively healthy snack. Someone can buy a bag of this product, share it, seal it back up, take it home; it's a good, available snack food. I wouldn't call it a health food -- though it is a whole-grain food. I put sugar on it, but it's not as sweet as Cracker Jack or Fiddle Faddle.
SD: It's also very addictive -- how much do you eat yourself?
PB: I haven't gotten tired of it yet. Probably, in the course of the day, because I sample what I'm doing with the salt, I eat the equivalent of one and a half small bags a day. It's a good source of fiber; it's pretty nutritious. A small bag has about 250 calories, and about half of that is from fat. It's corn oil, so it's heart-healthy, and there are no nut products or anything in it.
SD: So it's corn oil and . . . ?
PB: Popcorn, corn oil, sugar and salt, and I use a real gourmet, super-premium popcorn. [With] true kettle corn . . . you need to have the corn lightly caramelizing in the sugar while it's popping.
SD: How long does it take to cook a batch?
PB: It takes about three minutes from start to finish to cook eight pounds of popcorn.
SD: How much do you sell in a typical day?
PB: There's a huge amount of variation out here. On our biggest day, we went through a quarter-ton of popcorn. But if I go through 50 pounds in a day I'm pretty happy.
SD: What's the busiest day for you?
PB: New Year's Eve -- that's a big one. The Mardi Gras parade is almost as big. But usually UVM parents' weekend is one of the busiest days out here.
SD: How does cold weather impact your business?
PB: It's much better than hot, humid weather. I can pop a couple of batches and take 15, 20 minutes to bag it, and it's fresh in the cold, dry air. In the real humid air, I have to pop much smaller batches and bag it like a banshee, or it starts to get soggy. But when it's subzero, people don't stop.
SD: Where do you get the popping corn?
PB: I sample the popcorn every year. Popcorn's an agricultural product, so it varies. This popcorn comes from Nebraska. I actually bought three tons in late summer, because I know this is really good corn. I have multiple suppliers that I can turn to in different areas of the country. And if all else fails, I can go to a popcorn company that works like the Folger's of popcorn; they take popcorn from all over and blend it. You get pretty consistent results with them, but I don't care for it as well.
SD: What kind of sugar?
PB: Cane sugar. I found out the hard way that those other types of sugar don't work as well. Beet sugar does not caramelize. Like, if you do a crème brulee or something -- my wife's from Puerto Rico, so she makes flan -- it doesn't caramelize as well.
SD: I've seen a lot of maple kettle corn around lately. What do you think of that?
PB: I've made it; it can be great, though maple is hard because it's already been heated up and doesn't stand the high-temperature processing as well. And maple is such a delicate flavor, you're better off glazing pre-popped popcorn.
SD: When you go to the movies, do you bring your own popcorn?
PB: Uh, I'm not saying.
SD: Have you ever had anybody come back and say it's not what they expected?
PB: Very rarely. Usually I try to give people who have never had it a sample. I had a woman who was diabetic, and she came back, and I gave her her money back. I can count the number of returnees I've had this year on one hand.
SD: Do you find you have more adult or kid customers?
PB: Actually, I had a woman who was 70 years old who said this popcorn was the best she'd ever tasted in her whole life, and I actually get that quite a bit. It's hard for me to know definitively, but I think the fairer sex might buy more kettle corn. But that also might be because I'm downtown and there are more women shopping down here.
SD: I've seen you at the Marathon expo -- what are runners like as customers?
PB: They're certainly not concerned about calories, or the Atkins diet. I hate the Atkins diet.
SD: What's the best beverage to wash down kettle corn?
PB: Coffee's probably my favorite, but it's not too bad with beer, either.
SD: Do people use your kettle corn to string garlands for their Christmas trees?
PB: No, no!