For Uncle Pops, making artisanal popcorn has become a scientific endeavor to extract even more enjoyment from those explosively fun puffed kernels. By merging old traditions with the latest techniques, Uncle Pops aims to make sure your fascination with popcorn doesn’t go stale.
“That’s the idea. It’s rediscovering it, coming up with new flavors, new ways of updating it,” said Uncle Pops founder Jason Shah. “Popcorn is never going to go away.”
Thanks to Jason’s aptitude for science, the Uncle Pops approach to product development draws from chemistry, engineering, and imagination to create flavorful popcorn varieties that stay light and crisp. Uncle Pops currently has over 20 flavors that range from savory to sweet, from classic to unconventional. If flavors like Birthday Cake, Mochi Crunch & Nori, Lemon Bar, or Black Truffle don’t catch your eye, you’ll still find the comfortable old standbys: Caramel, Kettle Corn, Cheddar, and Movie Theater flavors.
What’s missing from the Uncle Pops experience are the overly sticky, greasy, dusty, or styrofoamy sensations that you often get from popcorn at entertainment venues, in microwave packs, and from chain store shelves. Not only does Jason create and experiment with flavor recipes, he has also designed many of the machines to ensure quality and freshness—even if he needs to pop 2,000 pounds of kernels a day.
“If it’s a certain flavor, or certain process, or a certain way to flavor it, then we can make equipment to help us achieve that result,” he said.
Inside the Gardena headquarters, an on-site production room houses impressively sized rotary tumblers that bond various seasonings to puffed kernels, along with caramelizers that apply gentle layers of sweetness with balanced precision. On production days, the fragrance of roasted corn wafts from the facility and beckons to snackers across the surrounding blocks.
Each popcorn recipe uses organic or non-GMO kernels with hardly more than four other ingredients to get its point across. For example, the Cookies N Cream is seasoned with enough finely crushed Oreo crumbs to impart the cookie flavor without overwhelming the popcorn. “It still has some sweetness, but it’s not over the top,” Jason said. “As much as we can, we try to include sustainable food choices and healthy ingredients.”
Flavor ideas come from personal preferences, suggestions from customers, or whatever may be trending on social media. The Unicorn popcorn is one Instagrammable example, lightly drizzled with pastel pink and blue-white chocolate and a smattering of sparkly sugar crystals.
The Rainbow mix is also camera-ready with its vivid colors hinting at cherry, lemon, green apple, blue raspberry, grape, and bubble gum flavors. With each color batch caramelized separately before being combined, it’s also the most labor-intensive flavor to make. Eaten by the handful, it gives the essence of fruity cereals without leaving a sticky, sugary aftertaste. “I remember eating popcorn that was so coated and too much,” Jason described. “But this, you don’t feel bad about giving it to your kids.”
Perhaps most indulgent is the Zebra, which is caramel-coated popcorn striped with white and dark chocolate. When these sweet clusters meet the salty contrast of pretzels and potato chips, the upgraded combination gets an extended name: Zebra Popzels. The Jalapeno Cheddar popcorn is also available as a Popzel snack mix.
Though many flavor options are available at the shop and on the Uncle-Pops.com website, availability of some flavors may vary. In the store, you might get a peek at new flavors in progress, such as Hatch Chile or Curry. There, you can pick up freshly popped flavors to eat right away or choose from several packaged options to enjoy later. Most packages use sealed aluminum bags that keep the popcorn fresh for 8 months, or 2 weeks if opened and resealed with a clip. “It’s all about keeping it in a bag with a hefty barrier that prevents oxygen and other atmospheric gases from going into the bag,” Jason explained.
To delight guests with fun flavors at large parties and corporate events, Uncle Pops can also pack popcorn into 5-gallon bulk bags. Or you can customize a 2-gallon tin with two or three flavors or colors of your choice, often ordered to match holiday themes or sports team colors.
For a more interactive event treat, Nitro Pop is Jason’s catering service, which serves popcorn with an entertaining demonstration of science. A measured amount of liquid nitrogen is carefully poured over each guest’s serving of popcorn, which crackles noisily as it flash freezes at -350°F. The nitrogen quickly converts to gas, creating smoky clouds of fog. Though the frozen popcorn still feels light and airy in your fingers, biting into it has an unexpected crunch, much like chewing ice. Meanwhile, puffs of fog billow from your nose and mouth, so that for a gleeful few seconds, you resemble a belching dragon.
“It’s happiness in a simple form. That’s why we bring it to parties. It’s unique, it’s something different. Guests will remember it,” said Jason. Nitro Pop averages about eight events per month, from holiday parties to mega trade shows, such as the San Diego Comic Con.
Having left a career in architecture to start Uncle Pops and Nitro Pop six years go, Jason recently put this background into practice to build a public showroom at the Uncle Pops facility, making it stand out in an otherwise nondescript industrial area. For the storefront’s grand opening last August, a large inflatable swimming pool filled with 250 gallons of popcorn invited customers to submerge themselves in the celebrated snack.
“We want this place to be more of a destination. I would like to make this whole room dedicated to popcorn. Whether it’s sculptures, or characters, or whatever it is,” he said.
In addition to buying packages and sampling fresh popcorn at the shop, you can try the nitrogen popcorn firsthand. A corner covered with rainbow popcorn wallpaper serves as a photo booth. And the three arcade machines in the gaming corner are free to play for nostalgic fun. For now, the showroom is open Thursdays and Fridays, and Jason plans to expand the schedule soon.
The showroom reflects Jason’s vision to modernize the popcorn experience while commemorating his love for popcorn as a kid. Jason remembers his dad, Rohit, making popcorn every week in a classic countertop kettle machine while he played video games. Naming the business Uncle Pops was Jason’s way of paying homage to both his dad (pops) and his uncle, Rakesh, a businessman who inspired Jason to become an entrepreneur. Having taken a chance to start a business based on family inspiration, Jason’s aspirations for Uncle Pops are based on his determination to keep new ideas poppin’.
“There are a lot of things you can do with popcorn,” Jason said. “We just want to bring something new to the table that’s really engaging and tastes good.”