Nearly five decades of corn-popping fun have come and gone since Ozark Mountain Popcorn had its start in 1966

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Ozark Mountain Popcorn, a Springfield business dating back to 1966, began with a few staple flavors — like cinnamon, cheese and butter — but now makes nearly 40 different kinds. “We are just constantly continuing to do more,” says store clerk Danielle Wright.

SPRINGFIELD – The year was 1966 when Ozark Mountain Popcorn began popping up corn in a variety of sweet, savory, mouth-watering and mind-bending flavors for Springfield’s snack-hungry public. But despite it’s nearly 50 years in existence, some say the longtime business is hidden in plain sight.

“We get told all the time that this is a … secret,” says Danielle Wright, one of the shop’s clerks. “That they’ve lived in Springfield their whole life and they didn’t know we were here.” That said, some people must’ve spilled the beans a time or two. “We need to pop corn every day to keep up,” says Jack Keys, the shop’s popcorn chef. “I’ll make over 400 pounds of popcorn today.”

Behind the shop 

The shop was originally located in the Southern Hills Shopping Center, but moved to its current location in the Route 66 Food Shop (at the corner of Chestnut Expressway and Benton Avenue) in 1997 when the Swanson family purchased the business. “They had already had the convenience store and the auto shop,” says Danielle. “So they just made room for the popcorn company to come in here.”

Folks who’ve seen the shop may wonder how there’s enough room for all those operations, but Danielle is quick with an answer. “This building is actually much bigger than it looks,” she says. “We have a whole production area in … (the) back of the building where we pop the popcorn, coat it, and then they bring it up front to us and we package and distribute.”

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Popcorn chef Jack Keys prepares to make the day’s batch.

 The popcorn process

That production area is exactly where you’ll find Jack, who’s already hard at work. “Now I’m fixing to make butter (popcorn),” he says, scooping up just enough kernels — all locally sourced from Burney, Mo. — for the next batch. “Everything we use, we try to use local,” he says.

But there’s more to perfectly popped corn than simply, well, popping it. First off, you need to start with the right type of corn. “There’s mushroom, which we use for the cheese flavors and the candy-coated ones,” says Danielle. “This one is more of a ball shape. and it coats really well and you get more of that flavor when you bite in. The other kind is butterfly, which everybody uses for butter popcorn. (The flavor) soaks in more. And it gives that really nice crunch.”

After the corn pops, it goes into a rotating cylinder that separates any unpopped kernels and broken pieces.
After the corn pops, it goes into a rotating cylinder that separates any unpopped kernels and broken pieces.

It’s not long before the soft pops of cooking corn began filling the room with increasing speed and intensity. As each of the three poppers fills, Jack tips the popped corn down to a rotating sifter to eliminate any broken pieces and unpopped kernels. “They won’t go on to the customer,” says Jack.

Next the popped corn is ready to be coated in flavor. “(Then it’s) poured out on the drying table where it cures,” says Jack. After that, it’s brought to the front of the shop where it’s bagged and distributed. “Everything is done here in house,” he notes.

While butter is today’s flavor of choice, tomorrow might be completely different. After all, for those looking to taste outside the box, Ozark Mountain Popcorn certainly offers ample opportunity. There are nearly 40 flavors including banana, pizza, sweet mint, peanut butter, green apple and root beer — the latter of which has received national recognition from Time magazine as a great way to “impress your Superbowl guests.”

Pre-packaged bags of popcorn are available to purchase whenever the convenience store is open.

 Confetti, a mixture of all of the fruit flavors, is another option. “I think that personally is a little weird to me, but it tastes like Fruit Loops,” says Danielle. And out of all of those flavors and more, “the most unusual that a lot of people just turn their nose up against is the dill pickle,” she says. “‘Cause they can’t believe (the flavor’s) on a popcorn. But it really does taste like a dill pickle.”

But even with all those unusual flavors, favorites are “always going to be the butter popcorn, the caramel and the cheddar cheese,” says Danielle.

Popcorn is available in a variety different sized bags (and tins), but that’s not all the shop sells. “We sell poppers (and) we sell the kits that people really love to use,” says Danielle.

 Who buys the popcorn?

While the shop sells to individuals, it’s also popular with businesses ordering for their employees. Bulk orders, for church and community events, are another speciality. “Our biggest bag of popcorn is a 55-gallon,” says Danielle. “So if you’re at one of those events and they have popcorn, more than likely they get it from us.”

And it should also be noted that the store ships order far and wide, especially during the holidays, and even internationally to places including Afghanistan and Greece. “The one from Greece, he’s been a regular customer the past few years and for Christmas he sends it over to his family over there,” says Danielle. “And they really enjoy it. He always sends different kinds so they can try different ones.”

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Ozark Mountain Popcorn has used the same logo since its start — which, as it turns out, was based on a real person. “The first year I was working here, this man came in and said, ‘I am that guy,’” says Danielle, noting the man confirmed the story with her boss. “And it was. It was this tall, red-headed man, and he said, ‘That’s me.’ I thought it was just somebody they made up, to be honest.”

But while all that popping, packaging and shipping keep the shop’s crew plenty busy, they also make time to experiment with new flavors. “We just play around with it,” says Danielle. “We’ll find whatever kind of seasonings we can or flavor mixtures and we just play around and see what is a good match. We’ll make different batches until we get it right.” What’s up next, you ask? “We’d really like to work on a coffee,” she says. “We’ve also thought about a butter rum and a wasabi.”

Want to shop (or a sample)?

Ozark Mountain Popcorn (700 N. Benton Ave., Springfield; 417-866-5555) is open from Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Holiday hours vary. However, pre-bagged popcorn can be purchased whenever the convenience store is open.

If you want to try the butter popcorn, come in through the end of October: In honor of National Popcorn Month, you can sample a small bag for only 50 cents!