Food & Drink

Dani Paluchniak Thinks You Deserve Better Than Microwave Popcorn

She runs the company that makes the Whirley Pop. She eats popcorn all day long.

It’s 10 a.m., and Dani Paluchniak is ready for her breakfast popcorn.

Paluchniak is the president of Wabash Valley Farms, home of the Whirley Pop stove-top popcorn popper, and a morning popcorn break is part of the office routine. “I like to top my morning popcorn off with our French Toast Popcorn Seasoning or sometimes the Homestyle Biscuits and Gravy seasoning,” she told HuffPost.

Popcorn for breakfast might seem like an unusual idea, but that’s just how things roll—or is it “pop”? — at the white-hot center of the popcorn universe. The company, which has 15 full-time employees, is run from a barn on the farm where Paluchniak grew up. It’s located in Monon, Indiana (population 1,748), a one-stoplight town located between Indianapolis and Chicago. Monon is in White County, the No. 1 popcorn-producing county in Indiana, which itself is one of the nation’s top popcorn-producing states.

So yes, Paluchniak eats popcorn for breakfast. And she also eats it at lunchtime (with Slow-Roasted Salsa seasoning) and at the end of a workday (with Zesty Cheddar Cheese or Fresh-Picked Buttered Sweet Corn seasoning).

She wants people to understand that they deserve a snack that’s truly delicious ― and, FYI, that’s not the stuff you’re nuking in the office coffee break room every afternoon.

“Microwave popcorn is about convenience, not taste,” she said.

Her Dad’s Invention

The Whirley Pop was the brainchild of her father, Mike Williams, whose own dad started farming in Indiana in 1958. Willams became a farmer, too, acquiring Wabash Valley Farms in 1974. At one point, he was growing popcorn for Orville Redenbacher.

“My dad loves to tinker, and he was always inventing something,” Paluchiniak said. “His ideas were all over the board. I remember he invented a mousetrap at one point, and I also remember there was a squirrel feeder he was working on. And no, I don’t know why anyone would want to feed squirrels.”

Her dad felt that poppers then on the market didn’t quite solve the problem of making better popcorn, so he began to play with the stirring mechanism on an existing stove-top popper. He created a series of angles in the metal rod that allowed it to be raised above the pan’s surface.

Instead of scraping along the bottom, this new mechanism “floated,” allowing kernels of any size to heat quickly and evenly. It made six quarts of superior-tasting popcorn in just three minutes. Williams was awarded a patent in 1980, and he began to look around for ways to promote his invention.

He decided to rent space at the International Home and Housewares Show in Chicago, one of the largest trade shows in the country. “Here he was, a farmer, who knew nothing about the industry,” Paluchniak said. “He arrived with his prototype popper and realized he didn’t even have a table. He found a guy who worked with the show and asked for help.” The man took pity and brought Williams a table for his “display,” such as it was.

Somehow, in a show that covered acres of vying-for-attention vendors, the founder of Williams-Sonoma, Chuck Williams (no relation), happened to walk by that borrowed table. He checked out the popper and was persuaded. Williams-Sonoma made a commitment to carry the Whirley Pop and feature it in its trend-setting catalog.

Catalog Culture

The timing was perfect. Williams-Sonoma had become a powerful tastemaker for the many Americans who were beginning to describe themselves with a brand-new term — “foodie.”

The company’s aspirational lifestyle catalog was first mailed in 1972. After an initial public offering in 1983, circulation for the catalog increased. It was delivered to the mailboxes of people who had the interest — and the discretionary income — to buy themselves new and interesting kitchenware. Slipping out of their shoulder-padded suits at the end of the day, they sat in front of their VCRs, sipping on glasses of Chablis and nibbling on Lean Cuisine dinners, turning the pages of the glossy catalog. When they came upon Williams’ Whirley Pop, they called Williams-Sonoma’s 1-800 number to place their orders right away.

People were intrigued by a simple-looking, reasonably priced piece of kitchen equipment that promised to produce something worlds apart from the chemical-laden microwave stuff that was becoming increasingly popular. Microwave popcorn first became available in 1983, and it was on its way to dominating the marketplace. But choosing to opt out of microwaving and use a Whirley Pop instead was a conscious choice for those willing to trade a little bit of their time and attention for a major improvement in taste.

Dani Paluchniak (second from right) and employees in a cornfield. The riddle on the fronts and backs of their shirts is: “What did the baby corn say to the mama corn? Where’s pop corn?”
Dani Paluchniak (second from right) and employees in a cornfield. The riddle on the fronts and backs of their shirts is: “What did the baby corn say to the mama corn? Where’s pop corn?”

The popper itself seemed classic, with the old-timey appeal of an authentic, homespun culinary antique, even though it had been invented only a few years before. Even its 25-year warranty made it seem like a remnant from the time of well-constructed tools that people could rely upon for generations.

Those who tried it became converts. After they bought one for themselves, they bought Whirley Pops for wedding gifts, housewarming presents and as a way to make sure their kids would always have something to eat when they moved into their first apartments. The poppers were passed down through families ― often battered, stained and a little bit greasy, but beloved just the same.

With its appearance in the Williams-Sonoma catalog, the product became a kitchen essential in many households. “That’s when the business really started, and when it became a living, breathing product,” Paluchiniak said.

Its appeal hasn’t wavered. Food writers gush about how it’s the secret to “artisanal” popcorn. No less a culinary luminary than J. Kenji López-Alt has written, “Why I Love My Whirley Pop, the Ultimate Popcorn-Popping Product.” It routinely appears on “best of” lists as the top stove-top popper. Some enterprising cooks are even hacking it for other food prep methods, including stove-top coffee-bean roasting.

The Whirley Pop At Home

The Whirley Pop holds a permanent place on many families’ stoves, standing by as an always-ready snack machine. (It doesn’t even need to be washed after regular use, just wiped with a paper towel. “A seasoned pan makes great-tasting popcorn,” Paluchiniak said.)

A group of children devour their popcorn in a promotional image used by Whirley Pop.
A group of children devour their popcorn in a promotional image used by Whirley Pop.

Even for kids who were microwaving chicken nuggets when they were still preschoolers, making popcorn in the Whirley Pop is often the first stove-top cooking their parents allow them to do, standing on a stool to turn the crank.

For Nathalie Wilson, a resident of Seal Beach, California, the Whirley Pop was the first stove-top cooking equipment that her son, David, 13, was allowed to handle alone.

“We gave it to him as a Christmas present in fourth grade,” she told HuffPost. “He remembers asking us to turn the stove on for him. Now he uses it at least three times a week, usually for after-school snacks, but also for family movie nights. He’s now cooking eggs, grilled cheese, spaghetti, mac and cheese, baked beans and rice, but he makes Whirley Pop popcorn more than anything else.”

Maeve Webster is president of Menu Matters, a consulting firm for foodservice manufacturers and operators. She described stove-top popcorn as a “high touch” food event.

“It takes a bit more time to prepare than microwave popcorn, but not so much that you run into inconvenience or time issues,” she said. “Because the cook can control seasoning and flavoring, that likely makes consumers feel better about what’s in it, versus the somewhat-unknown ingredients in microwave popcorn.”

In part because of that, Paluchiniak said the business is growing, with more than $5 million in annual sales of poppers, popcorn-making ingredients, bowls and gift sets. More than 200,000 Whirley Pops are sold each year, and the company has received interest from international markets including Brazil, Uruguay and Dubai.

Top Tips From Paluchiniak, The Popcorn Pro

Try a little tenderness: Movie theater popcorn is selected for the large size of its kernels (“It takes less popcorn to fill the tub up that way,” she said), but it can also be tougher. If you prefer a more tender variety, try her favorite, Baby White.

As with steak, so with popcorn: After popping has stopped, let the popcorn sit a minute or two before eating, which will eliminate chewiness.

What about adding salt: Salt only popped corn, not kernels. Pre-salting toughens the popcorn.

If you’re a fan of sweet and savory treats, try this trick: As soon as the popcorn stops popping, remove it from the heat and pour in 1/2 cup or more of M&M’s, then turn the handle to stir them in. The steam still in the popper will melt the chocolate inside the candies, and each bite will contain crisp, salty popcorn and soft, gooey chocolate.

SOS for old popcorn: If you bought too much popcorn and it’s become dried out, try re-hydrating the kernels by putting 3/4 cup of popcorn in a Mason jar and covering with a tablespoon of water, then shaking until the water is absorbed. Let the kernels sit in the jar for a few days and then try popping them.

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