Garrett Popcorn Shops turn 65
65 years ago on September 18, 1949, the Garrett family opened it’s very first popcorn shop in Chicago. As WGN’s Steve Sanders reports, nobody does salt and sweet quite like Garrett.
Garrett Popcorn Shops have one thing in common. You can smell them before you see them. Cook, scoop, shake; that’s how Garrett keeps customers coming back for 65 years. We met Devon at the counter, who moved from Evanston to Nova Scotia when he was four years old. “It’s awesome. (laughs) It’s really good. It makes me think like I’m a kid again.” The Garrett family opened their first popcorn shop at 10 West Madison near the bustling State Street corridor. They offered just a few flavors; caramel crisp, cheese corn, butter, and plain. But, Executive Vice President Scott Schroeder says it was customers who came up with their most famous combination. “Our fans would come into a shop, buy a small bag of caramel crisp, a small bag of cheese corn and then ask for another bag. And then they would combine it themselves as soon as they exited the shop.” Chicagoans call it the “Chicago Mix,” though it’s officially called, “The Garrett Mix.” To this day, it’s their best seller. Tom Bovio came to Garrett a decade ago to manage one of their four shops. They’ve since opened some thirty more. “Really there’s not much to our shops. We don’t have a ton of ingredients. We don’t have a lot going on. We just do a few things very, very, well.” Every shop has a kitchen where all popcorn is made just before you buy it. “Most of our suppliers have been with us for 65 years. We don’t use a powdered cheese like a lot of people do. It’s Wisconsin cheddar cheese. That’s the caramel before it becomes caramel crisp.” Another key ingredient; Garrett’s people. “You can teach skill set but you can’t teach joy,” says Schroeder. “You can’t teach passion.” Joey Sherman has been with Garrett 14 years. “I used to be a string bean I’m just letting you know so.” (giggles) His specialty is ribbing out-of-town sports fans. “Sometimes you have customers come in here with the wrong jerseys on. This is Chicago We don’t appreciate Green Bay. We don’t appreciate Minnesota. We don’t appreciate the Giants.” Cindy Spraggins has had a lot of jobs in her 26 years at Garrett. “Oh yes, I still eat it.” (laughs) But, her favorite job used to be cooking the caramel on Michigan Avenue, and occasionally catching caramel crisp thieves. Everything was out in front of the customers, so some customers come in there and just sneak, just reach over and grab the popcorn.” (laughs) Nothing much has changed in 65 years. Although they like to say they went a little bit crazy in 2009 when they added beverages. Garrett used to be a uniquely Chicago treat. But these days you can find it in New York, and all over the world. Alexa Tang is Garrett’s International Manager. “We have 2 shops in Dubai, one in Abu Dhabi. We have shops in Kuwait. We’re also in Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and growing. We have been very popular in Japan. We opened in February. To this day we still have lines that are 2 ½ -3 hours long every day.” V.P. Scott Schroeder makes no apologies. “I think of Garrett popcorn as being an ambassador for the city of Chicago. People travel all the time. It’s so nice to find a little bit of home in a different city.” For most people, 65 is retirement age. Schroeder says there are no retirement plans at Garrett. “We’re just getting started.” “There you go sir. Thank you so much.” Steve Sanders, WGN News.
Have you noticed the skill level involved with shaking those combo bags? How do they do that when they fill the bags so full? Employees tell us as proud as they are to work at Garrett, they rarely wear their uniforms in public; too many people asking, “Where’s my popcorn?” If you’d like more information or would like to share this story, click this link.
Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Marty Nutley produced this report.