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LeClaire business brings a little pop to local fairs, farmers' markets
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Photo: John Greenwood
Vicky and Dan Morrell own and operate LeClaire Kettle Corn Co., working out of a mobile cooker. The couple began the operation five years ago and traveled as far as Yuma, Ariz., to sell their product, but now stay within a 200-mile radius of the Quad-Cities.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Vicky and Dan Morrell own and operate LeClaire Kettle Corn Co., working out of a mobile cooker. In this photo Mr. Morrell stirs the ingredients as the batch begins to pop to keep it from burning.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Vicky and Dan Morrell own and operate LeClaire Kettle Corn Co., working out of a mobile cooker. In this photo Mr. Morrell dumps freshly popped corn into a holding tray where the 'old maids' will fall.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Vicky and Dan Morrell own and operate LeClaire Kettle Corn Co., working out of a mobile cooker. They use their own recipes for all their popcorns and currently have their product in four stores in the Quad-Cities.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
Vicky and Dan Morrell of LeClaire own and operate LeClaire Kettle Corn Co., working out of a mobile cooker. Above, Mr. Morrell stirs freshly popped corn in a holding tray where the 'old maids' will fall off.
LeCLAIRE, IOWA -- When Dan Morrell started the batch of kettle corn, he began with a healthy ladle-full of cooking oil sprinkled with a palm's worth of popcorn.

"When it starts to pop, I can throw the rest in here," Mr. Morell said as the heating oil began to roil, tossing the small white-and-gold kernels like driftwood at sea.

He was readying a batch to supply several stores that put it on their shelves for him.

Mr. Morell and his wife, Vicky, owners of the LeClaire Kettle Corn Co., have been cooking and selling kettle corn in the Quad-Cities and beyond for about five years. In addition to stocking local stores, they travel to fairs, carnivals and farmers' markets.

Originally, he had other businesses, but they were slowing down, so he sold them and started looking for something else. Mr. Morell said he was searching online and found information about kettle corn equipment.

At that point, he said, Vicky asked him: " 'What are you going to do now?' "

" 'I'm going to do this,' " he said, indicating the information he found on the Web.

" 'No. You're not going to do that,' " she replied.

But he got the equipment, and they did their first event. Their sales came to about $300 the first night, then about $1,500 the next day.

" 'Well, I guess it's OK that you bought it,' " he said Vicky told him afterward.

They traveled to events all over the U.S. at first but now keep closer to home -- only traveling within about a 200-mile radius of the Quad-Cities.

He said selling kettle corn at all of the various fairs and events gives him an idea of how well the economy is doing.

Everything they use is a commodity, and the prices fluctuate, he said.

Sugar costs a lot right now, several times more than when they started cooking, he said. A consumer buying sugar for the home might not see that, but someone buying it in bulk does.

He said they also started to see a decline in sales at events in 2009. People still were coming and looking but not buying as much.

"You could start to see things slide off," he said.

For a time, the Morells tried adding other treats, such as funnel cakes, but they have decided to stick to the kettle corn.

They have branched out in some ways, though.

Besides traditional kettle corn, which is flavored with sugar, Mr. Morell does a caramel-flavored kettle corn and a couple of kinds using cheese.

"You do have to mess with it," he said.

But, he warned, once the recipes were where they needed to be, he had to stop messing with them because the customers want consistency, especially now that the treat is available in stores.

"The key is, once you've got it good, you leave it alone," he said.

Mr. Morell said that before kettle corn, he did not cook much.

"Actually, I'm pretty proud of that," he said. "We've got the best you can get around."

He displayed that confidence in his kitchen as he cooked. The kitchen is in a small trailer, and space is tight with all of the equipment inside. The cooker alone is a metal bowl big enough to cook a good-sized pig.

There is only a narrow L-shaped walkway in which to move while cooking the corn and selling from a wide window on one end of the trailer.

Mr. Morell grabbed tools or ingredients from well-organized shelves with little searching and almost without looking. Everything went in without pause for measurement.

After the first kernels began to pop, Mr. Morell quickly poured more in using a large metal pitcher. The kernels cascaded into the oil at the bottom of the bowl. Then in went a quart of sugar and salt from a container the size of a beer stein.

He stirred the mixture with a large wooden spoon.

The small trailer started to fill with a thunderstorm of loud reports as the bowl filled with fluffy, white blossoms.

The entire space already was filled with the smell of the finished product -- equal parts the caramel aroma of cooked sugar and the green odor of corn -- before he started cooking. Making the fresh batch only strengthened the smell.

In about six minutes, he had a batch of about 4 pounds.

In the summer, he said they will use up to a 53-foot trailer worth of popcorn. Popcorn comes in a 50-pound bag.

Mr. Morell added that he has gone through 1,100 pounds of popcorn in one show and about 600 pounds of sugar.

At the Davenport Farmers' Market, they have to be there by 6 a.m. and have to be set up by 7 a.m.

"I have to be cooking by 7:30, otherwise I can't keep up with the crowd," Mr. Morell said.

When the corn was done, he turned the cooker over, dumping the corn onto an adjacent table.

The top of the table is not solid; rather it is a metal grill that has openings narrow enough that the popped corn will rest there, but the un-popped kernels will fall through onto a second, solid surface a couple of inches underneath.

After cooking and sorting, the finished corn gets bagged or sold right from the window.

"That's the best advertisement we can have is to get it in someone's mouth," he said.

For more information visit www.kettlepopper.us or call (563) 579-4126.






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