Jay Pithwa, 39, has always been a movie buff. He is not a fan, however, of movie-theater concessions.
“They are not just expensive but boring,” he said.
The same cannot be said of Pithwa’s popcorn, which he now sells in his new shop, Tastebuds Popcorn, in Ballantyne.
Inspired in part by his movie-going habits and his desire to sell a product “that is totally unique and isn’t overdone, like frozen yogurt and cupcakes,” Pithwa settled on popcorn – lots and lots of popcorn. His shop sells more than 150 flavors, with new ones introduced regularly.
Pithwa grew up in Harlow, England, just outside London, but moved to Georgia in 1991 at age 18 with his parents and younger brother. His first job in the U.S. was working at his uncle’s Dairy Queen.
He married Sapna Pithwa, a family practice doctor, in 2007 and moved to Belmont when she took a job with Caromont Family Medicine.
“Belmont reminded me of a quaint little English town,” Pithwa says. He knew he wanted to start a business there but wasn’t sure what form it would take.
In spring 2011, he attended a food and confectionary exhibit in Chicago – but he was most intrigued with a product that wasn’t part of the convention.
“People were waiting in 20-minute lines outside of a local popcorn store, “ Pithwa recalls. “I thought it must be pretty good.”
He bought some and agreed it was tasty but didn’t think there was much variety.
“There are a million different types of cupcakes,” Pithwa recalls thinking. “Why not popcorn?”
He knew he was on to something but had no idea how to implement it.
“I did tons of research,” Pithwa said. “I visited manufacturers, ordered product and searched the Internet.”
He knew he wanted to add real ingredients to add flavor, rather than the flavor packets that traditionally are used, so he experimented with different times and temperatures to find the ideal way to flavor the popcorn.
“If you’re off by 30 seconds or 10 degrees, it’s ruined,” Pithwa said.
After lots of trial and error (“Lots of error”), Pithwa opened his first shop in Belmont in December 2011.
He built a kitchen in the back of the store and, he says, “within the first seven months, we had outgrown the kitchen.”
He built a new kitchen in Cramerton and has the product made off-site and brought in daily to his two stores. He opened the Ballantyne store in May and is hopeful local support will get the word out to combat what he calls the “low visibility” of the location.
Jen Colangelo, 35, originally a frequent customer of Pithwa’s Belmont store, now serves as his general manager. “He gave me a way to support my habit,” Colangelo said.
Colangelo and Pithwa have frequent brainstorming sessions with Krishna Pithwa, 59, Pithwa’s mother, who partnered with him to open the popcorn business. She says Pithwa, “does everything behind the scenes” to come up with new flavor ideas.
Colangelo came up with Decadent Dog, a salted-caramel base drizzled with dark, milk and white chocolate.
“You get salty and sweet and the chocolate,” Colangelo said. “It covers all my cravings at once.”
The flavors are broken into three categories designated by color.
Yellow flavors are cheese and savory popcorns, such as Jalapeno Ranch and Dill Pickle, and retail for $3.95 for a small bag.
Green flavors are candy and caramel popcorns, such as Cotton Candy and Raspberry Cheesecake, and retail for $5.95 for a small bag.
Blue flavors are chocolate and premium popcorns, such as Colangelo’s favorite Decadent Dog, and retail for $9.95 for a small bag.
All the popcorn is available in bags and tins of various sizes, up to a 6 1/2 gallon party-size tin.
Customers have ordered the tins of popcorn for corporate events and as bridal and bar and bat mitzvah favors.
Customers also can follow Pithwa’s lead and sneak it into the movies.
Katya Lezin is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Katya? Email her at email@example.com.
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