You see it at the grocery store, maybe even have a bag or two in your own kitchen cupboard, but what you may not know is that the savory snack sensation Halfpops made its humble beginnings in one man’s Eastside home.
Mike Fitzgerald graduated from the University of Washington with a business degree, moved to the East Coast, received his M.B.A. from Carnegie Mellon University, owned (and then sold) a medical business, and raced for several years as a professional race car driver all before he found himself concocting test batches of savory, half-popped popcorn in his bathtub.
It was 2008 and the then-retired race car driver — and former two-time winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona and the third American to win the Porsche Cup — found himself with some spare time on his hands. It was then that Fitzgerald was introduced to a man who had found a way to produce half-popped popcorn kernels reminiscent of the tiny morsels often found at the bottom of the bag — the ones that are slightly puffed and don’t hurt your teeth when you bite. After several failed attempts at turning his creation into a business, he sought out others who potentially could. Recognizing a good business opportunity, Fitzgerald acquired the patent and took on the project.
Fitzgerald began developing the Halfpops recipe in the kitchen of his Medina home using air poppers to make experimental batches. “It would take four hours just to make one pound,” Fitzgerald explains. After more than one year of experimenting, Fitzgerald developed a marketable product and was ready to launch production.
The product? Half-popped kernels of popcorn that are full-flavored, salty and addictive. They’re like popcorn kernels that have been stripped of their fluff to reveal a crunchy center perfect for snacking on by the handful or for adding to soup, salad and even ice cream.
Fitzgerald was going to need a bigger kitchen, so he secured a production facility based out of Woodinville. Here, he and his only employee tested different types of popcorn, optimized popping to ensure quality, and determined the most efficient way to set up their production line. Neither had ever worked in a food-production plant, so it took some trial and error, including one incident where Fitzgerald describes a backup with the packaging machinery which resulted in bags and popcorn all over the place. “It turned into an ‘I Love Lucy’ episode,” he says. But, after working out glitches and setting up a well-oiled machine, Halfpops made it to the shelves at Metropolitan Market in summer of 2011.
Shortly after making its retail debut, the calls started coming in. “We were contacted by Hagen and Whole Foods. We didn’t have a sales team, the grocery stores were calling us,” Fitzgerald explains. As business and production grew, it was necessary to expand the production facility, and in 2013 Halfpops moved to a fully automated location in Indiana.
Though production has moved and the company has expanded, the business is still based out of Woodinville, and the quality of each GMO-and gluten-free kernel is the same.
“The biggest thing is the quality of the product,” Fitzgerald says. “We tried really hard to get the best ingredients we possibly could, while also trying to touch on everyone’s nutritional needs. We have our gluten-free and non-GMO certification — we’ve done all those things. We didn’t rush this, the focus has always been on doing it right.”
With Fitzgerald’s high standard for quality, it’s obvious why Halfpops has become such a success. He describes his philosophy as the “Halfpops culture,” which includes not taking shortcuts, using the best ingredients, and ensuring customers get a quality product. “I think that’s why it’s taken five years to roll out nationally,” Fitzgerald explains. “I want people to know that as we get bigger we’re still going to try to maintain the same quality standards that we had before and that our product is always going to be made with the same care it was made with when we first started.”
While Fitzgerald has traded in his racing helmet for an air popper, one thing that hasn’t changed is his love for his locale. “Growing up here, I always wanted to come back,” he says. “I was gone for 20 years and we moved back in 2002. I wanted my kids to grow up here, and it’s a great place to start a business.”
Find Halfpops at Metropolitan Market, QFC, Whole Foods, PCC Natural Markets, and online.
Calories 130 per serving
Price $1.49 for a 2-ounce bag, $3.99 for a 6-ounce bag