Photograph: Mark Segal courtesy Garrett Popcorn Shops

How Garrett Popcorn became an indisputable Chicago institution

As the popcorn empire celebrates its 70th birthday, we take a look back.

Maggie Hennessy

The unmistakable aroma of toasty, buttered caramel hits your nostrils on certain Chicago streets—rounding the corner at Ontario and Michigan in Streeterville or emerging from the Blue Line station at Jackson and Dearborn in the Loop. Most locals can promptly identify the intoxicating scent as CaramelCrisp, the flagship flavor of Garrett Popcorn Shops, the beloved confectionary chain that opened in Chicago 70 years ago.

Today Garrett is a bonafide popcorn empire, with locations in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Tokyo, Korea, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Malaysia. But to most Chicagoans, the brand is still intrinsically local—the sort of delicacy we proudly tout to out-of-towners.

“We make it the exact same way,” says director of consumer engagement Megan Chody, who, with CEO and husband Lance Chody, bought the brand from the Garrett family 13 years ago. “Nothing has changed, and it will not change.”

Whenever she’s in one of the brand’s 48 shops, Chody greets customers as they walk through the door, whether they’re from Toronto, Macedonia, Tokyo, Madrid or the Chicago suburbs. As soon as I leave the Michigan Avenue flagship store that day, she’ll host a delegation from China.

“What made you come in today?” she asks a man from Charlotte, North Carolina.

“This is my first time in Chicago,” he replies. “I was told I had to come here.”

Sweet beginnings

Garrett opened in the Loop in 1949, but the recipe that launched the brand was born in Milwaukee—the result of a family competition to see who could make the tastiest caramel corn. The Garretts eventually brought the nearly identical precursor to CaramelCrisp to the Windy City, opening in the Loop on Madison and State. Soon after, they added tangy, cheddar-dusted CheeseCorn to the menu; family members took turns mixing, stirring and tasting the popcorn for freshness.

Meanwhile, customers started doing a little mixing of their own. By the 1970s, it was customary for regulars to order a bag of cheddar corn, a bag of caramel corn and a third empty bag so they could toss the two together to create the perfect, sweet-savory fix. 

“At the time, Garrett would have scales in each shop, and you could pick your recipe, and the size of the bag you received was based on the weight inside,” Chody says. “So then the scale would change because CaramelCrisp weighs considerably more than CheeseCorn. The family started to allow the mixing of both, but the minute you were one ounce over, they shook it off.”

These days, though, they always overfill.

Garrett Mix debuted in stores around 1977, marrying equal parts cheddar and caramel corn in a single recipe. Of course, locals nicknamed it “Chicago Mix,” which officially lasted until 1992, when Minnesota-based chain Candyland patented the trademark for the name. In 2014 the company sued Garrett and fellow popcorn makers Snyder’s-Lance and Cornfields for using “Chicago Mix,” a name Candyland said it created by blending cheddar, caramel and regular salted popcorn. Chody declined to discuss the lawsuit, but a Garrett spokesperson at the time told Eater that the new name, Garrett Mix, was “more ownable.”

The secret sauce

It takes exactly 24 minutes to make a batch of CaramelCrisp, which partly explains the perpetual lines snaking down the street from the flagship shop, since the popcorn is made onsite daily.

The meticulous process begins in the cornfields, where Garrett’s partner farm grows two types of proprietary kernels—a winged butterfly kernel and a round mushroom kernel, each intended to cling to the sauce for maximum flavor. The kernels are air-popped then poured into bulbous copper kettles, where they’re mixed with a bubbling concoction of seven secret ingredients (one of which is definitely butter). The walls of the handsome kettles are lined with decades of seasoning that lends flavor to the final product, which is buttery, vanilla-tinged and not too sweet.

The caramel corn is dumped onto a cooling table in a mesmerizing cascade that unfolds in slow motion thanks to its tar-thick coating. Popcorn cooks mix it by hand with metal spatulas, taking care to leave a few clumps intact. In the adjacent room, the CheeseCorn emits enticingly tangy, cheesy aromas as it tumbles with house-made cheddar sauce in a spinning kettle that looks like a miniature cement mixer.

“The CheeseCorn tumble is our most popular Facebook video, something like 5 million views,” Chody notes.

World domination through popcorn

The Chodys’ biggest contribution to the Garrett brand is undoubtedly its global expansion. When they bought the company in 2005, there were just four shops here. Chody says husband Lance has been instrumental in fomenting brand loyalty.

“He was a pioneer in the concept of ‘brand’ being a good word,” she says. “Back in the 1970s and ’80s, there was kind of an ‘ew’ factor to being brand-aware, but he understood the love of Garrett was so huge, and saw the opportunity to share the experience with more people.”

The Chodys grew Garrett’s social media presence and built out the e-commerce platform. They added tempting seasonal flavors like Buffalo Ranch and Hot Chocolate CaramelCrisp. They leaned into the brand’s celebrity appeal, plying late-night host and comedian Conan O’Brien with custom tins of Garrett Mix for guests in the green room. Garrett has been named one of Oprah Winfrey’s Favorite Things a whopping three times.

“Think of The Brady Bunch episode with suds coming out of the washing machine. That was us trying to fulfill the orders from Oprah,” Chody says. “That launched our online shop and really took us to the next level.”

When Garrett opened the first location outside Chicago, in New York City, protective Chicagoans were less than thrilled. But the Chodys persisted, expanding next to Southeast Asia to show Midwesterners that the brand was becoming a household name on the other side of the globe.

“We wanted our Chicago base to understand we’re not taking anything away from you—we’re giving what you love, and a Chicago experience, to other places in the world,” Chody says. “Once our fans understood it, they embraced it and they’re happy when they go places and they can get it.”

If you hang around a Garrett shop long enough, you might be put to work on the delicate art of combining CheeseCorn and CaramelCrisp in wax-coated bags to make Garrett Mix.

A store manager shows me how to add a heaping scoop of light and fluffy CheeseCorn first, then denser caramel corn on top. She tosses them together with a deft wrist-flicking motion before folding the top of the bag down twice and making a small crease in the middle to seal it. I clumsily attempt the wrist flick while a handful of customers look on.

“Sometimes we gotta take the newbies in back,” Chody jokes to customers. She relieves me moments later, asking me to scoop a sample of Spicy CheeseCorn for a first-time visitor.

When it’s time to leave, staff load my arms with bags of CashewCaramel, Spicy CheeseCorn and Garrett Mix. As I walk south on Michigan Avenue, a pair of tourists glimpse my telltale blue-striped bag and immediately begin looking around.

“Follow your noses half a block up,” I say.

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