My earliest memory of Garrett Popcorn, one that I can still feel in my bones, is of feeling so cold I couldn’t think.
Back in the ancient past of the early 21st century, my dad had a conference in Chicago every December, and the whole family would tag along to spend the weekend shopping on the Magnificent Mile. Toward the mid-afternoon, laden with bags and tired from walking, one of us would inevitably catch the smell of freshly popped popcorn wafting out of the old Garrett Popcorn flagship location and force the rest to stop. Since the shop was so small, the line always spilled onto the sidewalk, requiring us to stand outside for 20 minutes or more as the wind howled at our ears and numbed our toes.
The cold only seemed to heighten the experience, since once inside, my senses quickly felt overwhelmed, as the heat livened my nose, and I inhaled the sweet aroma of caramel and cheese. Back in the hotel room, I’d scarf down handfuls of caramel and cheese popcorn, scattering the occasional kernel across the floor and under the bed in the process. (Tracking down half-eaten popcorn in random parts of a hotel room must be a real skill for downtown Chicago hotel cleaners.)
Like millions of Chicago tourists, I have some serious nostalgia for Garrett Popcorn, which encompasses more than just the food. It means exploring a new city, one I loved so much I eventually moved here. It also reminds me of family, especially since some are no longer around.
But nostalgia can also lie. Turns out my favorite burger spot growing up uses frozen patties. “Hackers,” a 1995 movie I watched on repeat in junior high, barely makes sense.
So along with visiting multiple Garrett Popcorn locations, I made sure to try as many other popcorn shops as I could. Now that I’ve consumed more popcorn in the last month than in the previous 10 years combined, I can safely say why I loved Garrett so much as a kid: It’s great. While there are some remarkable other popcorn shops in the area, including many that would be considered the best in other cities, none are as consistently, some might argue obnoxiously, craveable as Garrett Popcorn Shops. (That’s right, just like “Jewels” and “White Castles,” the ubiquitous pluralization strays from the official, singular name.)
What makes Garrett Popcorn so good? There are the secret recipes, of course, which the company will protect by a lawsuit if necessary. But after multiple visits, it’s also clear Garrett does a few obvious, if still vitally important, things to keep the quality high. Instead of just one kind of corn, the company uses both butterfly and mushroom kernels, so there is some variety in every handful. All the popcorn is air-popped instead of being cooked in oil. Most importantly, the popcorn is prepared fresh every day inside each location.
I’m not alone in my Garrett Popcorn affection. It has ensnared the affections of numerous celebrities, from Oprah, who featured it more than once on her TV show; to Beyoncé, who posted about it on her Instagram page. My favorite celebrity popcorn tale is of Kelsey Grammer, who appeared on the “Conan” late-night show in 2012 with what looked like orange-hued fingers. When viewers wondered what had happened to the actor, Conan O’Brien had to explain later that Grammer had simply devoured handfuls of Garrett Popcorn before walking on.
Who could blame him? The cheese popcorn, trademarked as CheeseCorn by Garrett, is marvelous. It’s cheesier and more flavorful than any other version I tried, with none of the chalky cheese powder that hobbles most. The caramel corn is just as impressive. Every single kernel of the CaramelCrisp is completely encased in a crunchy sugar coating, yet it hardly ever clumps together. While definitely sweet, it’s not overly so.
While both are tasty on their own, the real magic happens when you combine the two. Inexplicably, they coalesce into one of the most alluring snacks in Chicago. Sure each bite is salty and sweet, but it’s also creamy, crunchy, sticky and savory, with an unexpected toasted note on the fringes. I’ve tried combining cheese and caramel popcorn from numerous other shops, and none tastes as wild and wonderful together.
The official company line is that some loyal customers in the late 1970s inadvertently created the combo. Apparently, some guests would order a bag of caramel corn and a bag of cheese corn, before asking for a third empty bag to mix the two. Over the years it’s gone by numerous names, including “downtown mix” and “Chicago mix.” That last name stuck until a Minnesota candy company that owned the “Chicago mix” trademark threatened to sue Garrett Popcorn. Now it’s just called the “Garrett Mix.”
For the first time, I also explored other items on Garrett’s menu. In particular, I was impressed by the multiple varieties of caramel popcorn with nuts. I especially love the one with pecans, though almond and cashew aren’t far behind. The only variety I wouldn’t order again is the buttery popcorn, which is solid, if not meeting the absurd heights of the others. I didn’t try everything. Some locations have some seasonal flavors, and apparently, you can order plain popcorn if you don’t enjoy any flavor in your life.
The only slightly scandalous bit of Garrett Popcorn’s history I could find is that the recipe wasn’t technically invented in Chicago. In a 2003 Tribune article, the CEO at the time, Karen Galaba, said her grandmother, Gladys Garrett, invented the caramel corn recipe in 1931 while living in Milwaukee. That said, Garrett Popcorn’s first location opened in 1949 at 10 W. Madison St. in Chicago’s Loop.
Garrett Popcorn Shops was family-owned until 2005, when Megan and Lance Chody purchased the brand. In a Crain’s Chicago article from that year, reporter Sandra Jones wrote that “a touch of nostalgia played a role” in their purchasing decision. When I talked recently with Megan Chody, she explained part of the connection. “I craved two things when I was pregnant: Superdawg and Garrett’s,” Chody said, “and Superdawg wasn’t for sale.”
The Chodys obviously also realized the untapped potential of the brand. In 2005, the company only had four stores, all in Chicago. Now, there are locations all over the country and the globe, including in Dubai, Singapore and Tokyo. Fortunately, the brand still feels like a Chicago entity. “Our fans abroad adore Chicago,” Chody said. “We take it very seriously.”
As for the line that so many locals and tourists encounter, Chody said that those aren’t going away any time soon. “The line happens because we are making popcorn right there,” Chody said. “It takes 24 minutes to make a batch of CaramelCrisp, and if it is not ready, people have to wait. Fortunately, now we have pickup windows and drive-through options, but most of our fans like to wait in line. They’ve met people from all over the world. We’ll never take that away for the sake of not having a line.”
Garrett Popcorn Shops, multiple locations, garrettpopcorn.com