When the Fannie Rose Candy Shop opened in 2010 in downtown Duluth, its owners had set out to create a vintage candy store.

Nostalgic, bulk and “penny” candies, chocolates and truffles filled the store’s bins, shelves and display cases. The store at 103 E. Superior St. also offered popcorn made on-site.

But something unexpected happened.

Their gourmet popcorn took off, with sales growing each year. And this year, popcorn sales are surpassing candy sales.

Popcorn is now the staple of the business.

“Tourists definitely love it, but our biggest users have been our local market,” said store manager Matt Marturano. “We sell most of the candy in summer to tourists, but we sell popcorn year-round.”

As their popcorn’s popularity grew, owners Pat and Don Garofalo added flavors and mixes like white cheddar, garlic Parmesan and spicy queso taco popcorn as well as seasonal offerings such as caramel apple pie in the fall. Their seasonal birthday cake popcorn - which shouldn’t be kept warmer than room temperature because it contains white chocolate - is such a success it might be made available year-round.

“It’s exciting,” Pat Garofalo said of their popcorn’s gains. “We always wanted our popcorn to be … Duluthians’ snack food (of choice).”

A wholesale component was added to the business a few years ago. Now the popcorn also is sold in several other outlets, including Mount Royal Fine Foods and the gift stores at Glensheen and Edgewater Resort and Waterpark in Duluth.

Repeat customers

But it all started in 2010 with three basic popcorn varieties - caramel, cheese and buttered popcorn. Caramel and cheese were combined to become the Duluth mix; all three together became the Trio mix.

“When we opened the shop, popcorn wasn’t a big thing in Duluth,” Garofalo said. “It was popular in Canal Park, but there was not a popcorn shop like we have.”

For the first year, popcorn sales were less than 20 percent of the store’s business,

according to Marturano, who has been store manager for 4½ of its five years. But as the specialty store established a foothold in Old Downtown, he noticed they were getting repeat customers coming back for their popcorn.

“Slowly but surely, as the months and years ticked by, I noticed the popcorn was moving on up,” he said. “Candy sales have stayed the same, but popcorn keeps picking up.”

Many of their popcorn regulars are downtown workers, including employees at nearby Enbridge Energy, Minnesota Power and Maurices.

Regulars include Heather Morrow, who works for Visit Duluth.

“It’s the best popcorn I’ve ever had that doesn’t taste processed,” she said. “All cheese popcorn tastes very processed in the grocery store and at the other popcorn carts.”

Her favorites are Fannie Rose’s cheddar popcorn and the Duluth mix, which is the store’s most popular popcorn.

“I like to tell people they’re there and how good their popcorn is,” Morrow said. “If you like popcorn, that is just really great popcorn.”

To get the word out, a popcorn banner is outside the store. And fans above the front door send the store’s popcorn aromas outside.

It’s effective.

“You can smell it on the street; that’s what drove us in,“ said Jennifer Keeler, who stopped in last week with three of her sisters during a visit to Duluth. Two left with popcorn.

The smell of popcorn also brought in Aaron Main and a friend, who were walking by after having lunch at nearby Pizza Luce. They had resisted the temptation before when they walked by, but this time they gave in.

“It’s delicious,” said Main as he tried his first kernels of the Duluth mix.

The store’s popcorn comes in four sizes with varying prices depending on the variety. The cheapest, a small bag of buttered popcorn, is $1. The Duluth mix costs $3.79 for a small (6 cups), $8.99 for medium (16 cups), $17.99 for large (32 cups) and $69.99 for jumbo (132 cups).

The jumbo, big enough for more than 50 people, is most often gotten for weddings and other special events, Marturano said.

Keeping it fresh

For wholesale, the store’s popcorn is packaged in a thick, heat-sealed bag that keeps the popcorn good for several months. At the store, most of the popcorn is kept fresh in warmers and scooped out as customers buy it. Seasonal offerings, however, are pre-packaged.

“We make it fresh at the store as often as we need to,” Marturano said. “In summer we are making it every day. In December, our busiest month, we’re making it from the time we open until the time we close.”

Their popcorn tins, which come in three sizes, also are filled when people buy them and can be one or a combination of popcorns. They’re especially popular holiday gifts, he said.

So with popcorn becoming the bulk of Fannie Rose’s business this year, where does it go from here?

“The overall future goal is to increase popcorn sales and push for a larger wholesale business,” Marturano said.

For now, they have some capacity to make more popcorn at the store. But if demand grows beyond its limit, establishing an off-site popcorn warehouse is possible, he said.

But the downtown store wouldn’t go away.

“We would keep the downtown store and continue making the popcorn there that’s sold at the store,” he said.

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Fannie Rose Candy Shop: www.fannierosecandy.com