Milford-based Delmarva Popcorn and Nut Company says it offers popcorn like no other, and for 10 years the company has been developing a lineup of more than 50 varieties of kettle-cooked and flavored popcorn to prove the point.
The business formally opened in 2013, but owner Mark Pena said he's been cooking kettle corn since the late 1990s, when he discovered his product and technique. He began traveling to a few craft shows each year to make extra money.
"The reality for us is we are just a small business; we are just trying to do a good job," he said. "We don’t compete with the beach. We try to not do what they do."
Originally, Pena said, he was an ironworker from the Washington, D.C. area, but when he saw a vendor making kettle corn, he recognized opportunity. He knew if he could get a kettle like the one he saw, he could master the technique and have fun with it for some side cash.
Within weeks, he got the equipment and began popping up at local renaissance fairs and craft shows with his new side job.
A couple years later, he relocated and met his girlfriend, Lewes shopkeeper Michele Buckler. Pena said they joined forces, and he began to build his brand of kettle-cooked popcorn in the early 2000s.
More recently, Pena said, he started to add caramel and savory flavors to the mix, and that's when the business really started popping off.
"The response has been really good," Pena said. "We do a lot of fun flavors, and that’s what makes us different, so we try to make a really good popcorn in all these different flavors."
Other popcorn purveyors offer standard flavors such as butter, caramel and cheese, but Buckler said this company has created its own niche, offering distinctive flavor combinations in almost any flavor, except butter, on high-quality popping corn.
Flavors include best sellers like hot and spicy voodoo caramel corn or caramel and Old Bay. Savory popcorn at Delmarva Popcorn and Nut Company also comes in the same flavors as potato chips and dozens of other creative combinations.
"Mark’s Kettle-Korn is a little sugar and a little salt, and he pops it right there on the spot," Buckler said. "We also do about 35 savory flavors, everything from a blue moon flavor - like the Blue Moon beer - to pepper pop, loaded baked potato, sour cream and chive."
After years of working farmers markets and fairs, in 2011, the co-owners were ready to go bigger. They opened a retail and production facility at 1001 N. Walnut St. in Milford, but soon after, they hit a roadblock when Pena was diagnosed with throat cancer and shifted his focus to treatment. Business expansion was postponed; the couple held their breath.
By 2013, however, the popcorn guru said he was given a clean bill of health and was ready to get back to professional popping. The co-owners were finally able to hold a grand opening at the production and retail facility in November, and now Pena says they are back in action.
The store carries freshly popped corn as well as other specialty items such as trail mixes and the nuts that sometimes come as a topping for their popcorn. If the shelves aren't stocked with a customer's preferred flavor, Pena says, his staff will cook it up on the spot.
"We try to keep a shelf of at least 15 different flavors already made," he said. "If you really want a flavor, say, a pizza-flavor popcorn, we can mix things right on the spot. Give me about 10 minutes, and it's done."
The couple have also been able to build their business by providing trendy popcorn bars for weddings, baby showers and other special events beyond the craft fairs and farmers markets where Pena's popping began.
These days, he employs retail and production associates at the store in Milford, which is open from noon to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and Pena spends most of his work week making deliveries and popping at his established circuit of farmers markets in Delaware, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
"Women love it, men love it, children love it; it’s just a different flavor," Pena said. "Just come in the store. If you come in, there’s a chance we’re gonna hook you. It’s that little personal touch that we add."