Long lines of people wait their turn to purchase bags of popcorn all over Chicago during the after work hours. I’m not a big popcorn fan, thus the phenomena is an odd sight. When a coworker brings a bag of the classic Chicago mix, I carefully pick out my individual flavor. She tells me to eat the flavors combined. “Gross!” I thought, “A mixed bag of caramel and cheese popcorn sounds like another crazy Chicago food idea.” This is a city that eats fried chicken and spaghetti together or places peppermint candy in pickles. One day, I meet this super web designer, Jimmy Thomas, a brilliant creative thinker. He invites me to take a lunch break to get some popcorn. Fine. I order one small caramel popcorn bag. He buys that strange mix. Again, he mentions the popcorn taste better when it’s mixed. Exasperated, I start a long-winded explanation of how anyone could enjoy a gross mixed bag of popcorn, “…caramel and cheese… why would anyone…” As I start the next sentence of my compliant, he places a handful of the Chicago mix popcorn in my month. “…Yum. Okay. Ummm…” was my humbled response. Guess what? I was in line the next day for my mix bag of popcorn.
Many years later, I learn Jimmy has started a food company, RedPandora. He’s making sandwiches, salads, and Chicago’s favorite salty and sweet treat, popcorn. It’s made with natural ingredients and unique flavors. His flavor combinations are wild compared to that classic Chicago mix. RedPandora and MyLifeRunsOnFood.com have teamed up together to spread the good news about his popcorn and food and to offer a contest. It doesn’t include shoving handfuls of his popcorn in your mouth. All you have to do is guess this year’s Oscar winner in the following categories: Best Pictures, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Leading Role, and Directing. The contest and details are at the end of this inspiring food story interview with Jimmy Thomas of RedPandora.
How did you come up with the name RedPandora?
RedPandora is based on the feminist Jane Ellen Harrison’s interpretation of Pandora, which is a manifestation of the Great Goddess (provider of the gifts that made life possible). When I read about her interpretation of Pandora’s box, it was awesome. It captures the pulse of what true local, organic, sustainable farming community is trying to do today: Provide people with real quality food, which is pretty much a gift that provides life.
When did you start connecting fresh, quality ingredients to your health? What was the inspiration?
My awareness of connecting fresh, quality food with health happened gradually. It’s definitely a great education and I’m still learning. Luckily, the meals placed on my childhood plate were homemade. As a teen, I recreated “Gourmet” meals to impress a girlfriend. Since my Grandmother had a garden, Grandfather had a restaurant, and Mom taught me how to prepare a lot of dishes from scratch; I knew a few cooking tricks. However, I still didn’t make the connection of quality ingredients with good health.
I developed a slight asthma upon maturity. I learned asthma is triggered by my diet and lifestyle: Soda, processed foods, certain cheeses, and eating late at night. That’s when I started paying attention to ingredients by reading food labels. It’s upsetting to read about my food. To purchase or find food made with natural ingredients is difficult, but processed, cheap meals are easy to buy. A lot of people knew this before the movie Food, Inc. debuted. At the time, it was depressing, for the options were limited, especially if you lived in a food desert.
After working in a café, while holding down a consulting job, I decided to reintroduce myself to natural food by cooking at home more and staging cooking events at various restaurants like Blackbird and Otom. I also threw a few food parties with certain themes like Grass Fed Beef or wild-caught Salmon and Tuna. This helped me get back to the basics of food preparation in the traditional sense.
As simple as it might seem, I was inspired by visiting rustic butcher shops and bakeries in Chicago and New York. I love old bakeries and the interaction between the patrons and the butcher. I also enjoy specialty stores focusing on imported and local food ingredients. I started to see more of these items made here in the U.S., and I thought, “I can do this.” It’s cool to see various cities and their unique food culture. I also noticed that the companies who were making these goods didn’t use a lot of preservatives. They keep their ingredients simple. It’s old school, bright and fun. I love it. Even the sandwiches in the specialty stores were cool, because they used great bread, unique cheeses and spreads.
Chicago is known for its popcorn. What makes your company different?
I learned other brands of Caramel Popcorn is made with corn syrup, artificial preservatives, and additional unnatural ingredients. I wanted to eat a small bag of Caramel or Cheddar popcorn without feeling sick because of excessive oil and salt. I also wondered, how would the same bag of Caramel Popcorn taste if it has real Madagascar vanilla? So, I decided to use some of my cooking experiences to create a few unique flavors, but first my goal was to start simple. I replaced all the unnatural ingredients with real flavors. I love the malty flavor of rice syrup, thus I decided to use it in place of corn syrup. Rice syrup is more complex in flavor and helps bring out the vanilla. However, a vanilla bean from Thailand is different from a vanilla bean from Mexico. The Madagascar bourbon vanilla bean is pretty much my standard because of its intense flavor even though it has less seeds than Mexican vanilla beans. Subtle flavor hints are very important to me.
After becoming familiar with the technique of making flavored popcorn, I started developing my own flavors, such as Bacon Cachaca (Brazilian Rum) Crunch, Honey Truffled popcorn w/Apple wood Smoked Salt and Blue cheese, Pumpkin Pie Madness (Seasonal), and Chipotle Cheddar. When people see RedPandora’s popcorn at first glance they usually respond, “Wow! You have a lot going on there.” They’re always pleasantly surprised when they taste the mixture of flavors.
Describe the earlier days of starting RedPandora. What are the current difficulties and successes?
When I first started, it was tough. After receiving the license, sanitation certification, and passing the health inspections by Chicago and the Department of Agriculture, I did not have a staff. My girlfriend and I would literally work in the kitchen on Fridays from 6 p.m. until 7:30 a.m. the next day. On Saturday, we would repeat the same schedule again. Keep in mind, in the beginning; I had a full time job. When I wasn’t working at the “9 to 5” job, I was in the kitchen prepping sandwiches and coming up with ideas. It was almost like working 24/7 with a two-hour break. I eventually took a hiatus from my day job to work more in the commercial kitchen.
My co-workers at the time would try different popcorn flavors. They had no idea they were guinea pigs. I think they were happy about it, because it’s free Caramel Popcorn. A few of them found out about my business in the newspaper after I left my day job permanently. I still keep in contact with a few of my co-workers, for we laugh about it now.
Ordering ingredients is a major difficulty. I use a lot of specialty items, like rice syrup. It’s hard to find a distributor who carries it. I usually end up ordering directly from the source, gallons at a time. When making recipes with specialty ingredients, there are only a few distributors who carry organic items. Although organic distributors are growing in numbers, you still have to hustle a bit to get the right free-range meats and other ingredients. It’s still an old world process of ordering ingredients. In my opinion, that’s why it’s easy for a restaurant and food processors to order ingredients from a mega distributor. The large distributors make it easier and cheaper to buy sub par ingredients by building relationships with large farms and companies who have the ability to produce a large amount of goods. That leaves out some of the smaller food producers and farms, which may not have the cash or ability to produce a large amount of a product. This leaves me working with smaller distributors who focus on specialty items and/or organic products. It’s funny, because I’ve met a few of the farmers who personally make weekly deliveries of their products to the city. You can’t get any fresher than that and that’s what I love about it.
“…her interpretation of Pandora’s box, it was awesome. It captures the pulse of what true local, organic, sustainable farming community is trying to do today: Provide people with real quality food, which is pretty much a gift that provides life.”
What is RedPandora’s future plans for growth?
Well, I’m glad you asked. I plan on participating in a few more Farmer’s Markets. I’m working on launching a new food truck this year. It’s exciting! We’re selling our sandwiches, popcorn and cooked food with fresh and unique ingredients on a truck. Currently, I’m organizing a fundraiser for truck fabrication work.
What are your Oscar predictions for 2011?
Black Swan (All the way!), The King’s Speech, and The Kids are Alright
Thank you Jimmy, for taking the time to complete this interview!
Visit RedPandoraFoods.com to learn more. Online ordering is coming soon. Individuals and vendors interested in purchasing RedPandora’s natural and organic products, please email info @ redpandorafoods [dot] com or call (773) 956-9789.