Why Garrett is a Chicago pop(corn) culture icon

Warning: the following is cheesy and corny

By Lois Alter Mark,

Garrett Popcorn Millennium Park Plaza — Photo courtesy of Garrett Brands

Their stores may be popping up in surprising places around the world, but Chicagoans want you to remember that Garrett popcorn belongs to them.

"Deep-dish pizza and Garrett are totally ours," said Lisa Martin, a Chicago-based blogger. "Honestly, I think Garrett is one of the reasons we moved here from Wisconsin 17 years ago! When our family comes to visit, it’s the first place they want to go."

The iconic brand has been making gourmet popcorn since 1949 when they opened their first store at 10 West Madison Street. Now, dozens of shops, cities and countries later, they are still considered a Chicago tradition. 

Why? What is about Garrett that makes Chicagoans so possessive? 

"It started here and will always be considered a local business to us," said Chicago native, Hope Bertram. "We support them by sending their Garrett Mix to our clients as holiday gifts every year."

According to Melissa Lawler, a Chicago expat, "It’s simply the best popcorn in the world. The Garrett Mix is the most addictive thing I’ve ever put in my mouth."

Garrett Mix — Photo courtesy of Garrett Brands

Garrett Mix is a sweet and savory combination of CaramelCrisp and CheeseCorn that Windy City fans created decades ago. In fact, they’re still creating their own combinations. The standard mix is an even 50/50 split, but regulars ask for custom proportions of it as though they’re placing a Starbucks order.

"We’ve had people ask for 68% cheese and 32% caramel," laughed Maneesha Khandelwal, Senior Vice President of Garrett Brands. "It’s really personal."

Although the Garrett Mix remains the company’s best seller, CaramelCrisp (which you can have with almonds, cashews, pecans or macadamia nuts) and CheeseCorn are also available on their own, as are Garrett’s signature Buttery, Plain and a few seasonal and limited time only flavors.

In each store, Garrett is handcrafted in small batches throughout the day, so it’s always fresh. Depending on the location and the time of year, they can make anywhere from 30 to 150 batches per day.

I recently got a chance to go behind the scenes at their Millennium Park Plaza shop to watch the process, and it was all I could do not to stick my hand into the pot. The smell back there is irresistible.

Garrett popcorn — Photo courtesy of Lois Alter Mark

Garrett makes its popcorn – from secret family recipes handed down over three generations – in the same old-fashioned copper kettles they’ve been using since the beginning. They start with a proprietary hybrid of butterfly and mushroom kernels which are grown just for them. Because the butterfly kernels have "wings" on them, there’s more room for extra cheese and caramel to stick.

When I subtly asked about the rest of the ingredients, Khandelwal smiled and said, "We don’t give away our recipe, but here’s a hint: Our CaramelCrisp includes seven ingredients. One of them is water and the others are all easy to pronounce and are probably in your pantry or fridge. You couldn’t replicate it anyway because we use such high-quality ingredients and have a very methodical process. Our stores are similar to bakeries in that respect."

And that’s why there’s almost always a line at Garrett shops. 

"The experience of coming here and being able to pick their favorite combinations is a joyful tradition for so many Chicagoans," said Khandelwal. "For visitors, Garrett is a destination in itself."

Garrett Popcorn — Photo courtesy of Garrett Brands

While Garrett’s striped tins are immediately recognizable, they also offer tins in a variety of sizes featuring legendary sights and events like the Chicago skyline, Wrigley Field and the Cubs’ World Series victory. They even started a Pinterest board, "Tinnovate," which offers creative ways to re-use and upcycle your empty tins. 

Garrett is also doing good with their tins by donating to charity. When you buy the special edition Feeding America tin, 10% of the purchase price goes toward helping the non-profit organization distribute meals to local families.

Garrett Popcorn Feeding America Tin — Photo courtesy of Garrett Brands

"We’re big believers in giving back to the community," said Khandelwal. "Through our Garrett Cares program, we help promote social justice, wellness, child and family services, education and the arts."

That’s important to Chicagoans like Bonnie Kenaz-Mara. "I love that Garrett supports the Black Ensemble Theater,” she said. "They raise money for them and sometimes pass out popcorn to the audience. They’re also an unmistakable presence in Chicago parades, pumping out the delicious scent of Chicago Mix." 

It’s no wonder other Chicago icons connect with them. The historic Blackstone Hotel, Autograph Collection often leaves a tin of Garrett popcorn on guests’ beds as part of their turndown service.

Turndown service at The Blackstone Hotel, Autograph Collection — Photo courtesy of The Blackstone Hotel, Autograph Collection

"The Blackstone has served as an expression of Chicago’s dynamic culture since 1910," says General Manager Kim Corrigan. "Our partnership with Garrett allows our guests to take a bite of that Chicago pride home with them."

Even if you’re not staying at The Blackstone – even if you’re not staying in Chicago, for that matter – you can pick up a bag or tin of fresh popcorn at one of the two Garrett shops at O’Hare International Airport.  In fact, Garrett Popcorn Shops took home top honors in our Readers' Choice Awards for Best Airport Grab-And-Go Dining.

On my flight home, I was allowed to bring my tins of popcorn on the plane even though I already had a carry-on and a purse.

"Hey, it’s Garrett," the flight attendant said as she waved me through. "Just don’t touch the screen with your orange fingers."