With 29 flavors available, this ain't your Angels Stadium kettle corn--Johnny Kendall makes sure of that. His Maw 'N Paw Kettlekorn pops corn every day in its unassuming Laguna Hills shop, yet passers-by have no idea it's even there. "Folks who have been going to this plaza for years stop by after smelling a fresh batch, telling us they've always wondered where it was coming from," Kendall explains.
Maw 'N Paw Kettlekorn was an idea that sprouted from watching vendors at local fairs cook up the sweetened stuff for hungry lines. The business opened in early 1999, with a name derived from the 1950s comedy flicks centered on Ma and Pa Kettle and their 15 children. Kinda makes Jon & Kate look lackluster in comparison.
Johnny began working here when he was 19 and took over daily operations a couple of years later, while still studying business at Vanguard University. He updated the store's look, installing cabinetry to showcase his product, and introduced gift tins. Today, he's 26 and about to become a father for the first time.
The process of making popcorn is a pretty straightforward one: heat the kettle, add some oil, and pop kernels until they're done. It's "handmade from start to finish," beams Kendall, as I watch his team sift out hulls and bits that didn't explode under the pressure. Batches are small, with only 15 of the smallest sized bags are cooked, sifted and filled at a time. The secret at Maw 'N Paw's is in the flavoring, which happens both during and after cooking. He allows a quick glimpse in the backroom of the magic that is, at the moment, hand-drizzled Guittard chocolate.
Salivating over the wall-to-wall inventory, there's something to be said for his choice of
presentation. The see-through packaging is simple yet smart branding. No two bags are alike, allowing each bag an individuality rarely seen at the supermarket. "What you see is what you get," he says, and what you get is a product guaranteed to be filled to the brim with drizzles of milk, white, even minty-green chocolate. His inspiration for mint-chocolate swirl (one of its newer flavors) was a trip to Olive Garden: munching on an Andes mint at the end of his meal, Jon realized it would pair very well with kettlekorn, so he made it in regular, dark- and white-mint flavors.
Zebra caramel chocolate is the company's No. 1 flavor, coated with milk and white chocolate, plus a hint of salt to bring out the flavors. My time in the Windy City made me familiar with many things, but Maw 'N Paw's Chicago corn needed some clarification before I envisioned tomatoes and relish. It's inspired by the Cheddar flavor made popular by Garrett Popcorn in Chicago. For stronger palates, a spicy version includes Cajun seasoning. While locals can't get enough of the chocolate-drizzled stuff, the mixed fruit is pretty popular as well. Its combination of watermelon, boysenberry and strawberry-banana makes for an eye-catching package of rainbow hues.
The original has a classic taste: lightly sugared, lightly salted. Kendall ensures just the right amount of seasoning in this flavor because, simply put, he expects "popcorn to taste like popcorn." Experimentation is welcome here, as he re-evaluates and tweaks Maw 'N Paw's process each year, looking for ways to improve quality. His most creative custom request was baklava, but, like his personal favorite, zebra caramel mixed with peanut butter, one won't see either flavor on the shelves. Why? The cost to create such labor-intensive tastes is simply too high.
Christmastime is the busiest season for the crew at Maw 'N Paw, which varies between five and 10 hard-working team members, based on demand. The chewy specialty is also popular with the wedding crowd, with party-favor inquiries coming in every spring. Kettlekorn is a profitable fund-raising idea; local high school teams and auxiliary organizations work with Kendall throughout the year. He even teams with Vons and Pavilions stores in Southern California to help with charitable causes such as multiple sclerosis and Easter Seals by providing a bag of kettlekorn when patrons make a donation.
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Traditional marketing techniques are avoided, as word-of-mouth appears to be the best way to drum up business. Repeat customers play a big role as well. Johnny has regulars who've been visiting weekly for more than five years. Folks who have his cell-phone number place orders after hours, something he's happy to accommodate, since "customer service in retail . . . you don't see that anymore." He smiles when he spots fans chomping on bags at baseball games and smuggling it into movie theaters. Maw 'N Paw's old-fashioned way of conducting business embodies a certain charm people appreciate. For everyone else, "The best way to get a customer is to get a bag of popcorn in their hand."
Maw 'N Paw Kettlekorn is located at 24881 Alicia Pkwy., Laguna Hills, (949) 859-3300; www.mawnpawkettlekorn.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Local businesses throughout California also carry Maw 'N Paw Kettlekorn; a listing is available here.