From Fisher’s Popcorn, different business models, but the same taste

The Fisher’s Popcorn in Ocean City, Md., is less than nine miles away from the Fisher’s Popcorn in Fenwick Island, Del. The two shops use the same recipe, are owned by members of the same family and often share items such as corn syrup and butter.

But they are completely separate companies.

And in recent years, each has carved out its own approach to drumming up sales and remaining relevant long after the summer beach crowds have gone home.

“We co-exist in a unique world,” said Donald Fisher Jr., 57, who owns the Ocean City shop with his mother and sister. “People ask us all the time why don’t we do retail, or why don’t we sell T-shirts [like the shops in Delaware do]. And I say, ‘Have you ever heard of biting off more than you can chew?’ I don’t want to sound smart about it, but we have our business, they have theirs, and it works out.”

Americans consume 15 billion quarts of popcorn every year — or 49 quarts per person — a figure that continues to grow, according to Wendy Boersema-Rappel, a spokeswoman for the Popcorn Board, an industry research program established in 1998.

Restaurants such as Commissary in Logan Circle have put truffled popcorn on their menus. Founding Farmers, which has locations in the District and Potomac, recently began offering a popcorn of the day, with flavors such as Mexican chocolate and rosemary Parmesan. There are food trucks that sell nothing but popcorn, and grocery stores are increasingly selling packaged popcorn alongside bags of chips and pretzels.

There are many business models, and as the Fisher family has found, many avenues to sales.

The original Fisher’s Popcorn, the one in Ocean City, was founded in 1937 by Everett Fisher, Don Jr.’s grandfather. In the years since, the store has eked out a niche organizing fundraisers for schools and churches and has an established a mail-order business that shipped out more than 5,000 tins of popcorn last Christmas.

Farther up the coast in Delaware, the Fisher’s Popcorn stores in Rehoboth Beach, Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island have taken a decidedly different approach. The stores, owned by Marty — Don Jr.’s sister — and her four children, sell packaged popcorn to 250 regional shops, including Whole Foods. The company pads its profits with T-shirt sales, and recently began selling tacos next door to its Fenwick Island shop.

Neither company would disclose revenue figures, except to say that annual sales were “in the millions.” But other measures, such as the number of employees (roughly 70 at both companies) show that operations in Ocean City and along the Delaware coast have become comparable. Both said they sell approximately 100 tons of popcorn every year.

“Fisher’s is a staple of the community,” said David Martin, executive director of the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s an iconic brand — nobody leaves the beach without stopping to buy popcorn first.”

But despite the companies’ different business models, logos and flavors, most people said they had never realized the two were not one. Dozens of customers up and down the Delmarva coast — many of whom had been stopping by Fisher’s for decades — said they hadn’t noticed the difference, and, quite frankly, didn’t care. Fisher’s Popcorn was Fisher’s Popcorn.

“I don’t think people are too concerned with whose name is on the business papers or on the office door,” Martin said. “They just love the taste.”

Just ask Michael Clarke, a 30-year customer of Fisher’s, who was buying tacos at the company’s sister shop in Fenwick Island earlier this summer.

“My wife forbids me from buying popcorn anywhere else,” he said, adding that he takes at least three buckets home to Baltimore every year. “I made the mistake of leaving the beach without stopping at Fisher’s once. That didn’t work out for me — I had to drive right back.”

Marty Hall, who owns Fisher’s Popcorn in Delaware, didn’t set out to create a business any different from that of her parents, brother and sister — and for many years, it wasn’t. The Fisher’s in Fenwick Island, which Hall opened with the help of her father in 1983, stuck to the family’s signature recipe for decades. The shop had industrial poppers and metal kettles with wooden oars. Employees poured in corn syrup, butter, salt and brown sugar, and stirred until it all came together. It was a process that took six minutes from start to finish, and a formula that seemed to work.

It wasn’t until 2009, in the throes of the economic downturn, that the company began negotiating wholesale deals with area stores.

The original plan, employees said, had been for Hall to sell to retailers near Delaware and the Fishers to oversee orders in Maryland. But the logistics proved messy.

“When we started doing wholesales, there were worries that we’d hurt business in Ocean City,” said Will Hall, Marty’s son. “So we decided to split it up so — we do the wholesales, they do the fundraisers. It was an easy way to get along.”

Meanwhile in Ocean City, the rising costs of corn kernels and butter had begun to take their toll. The Fishers had experimented with retail sales before, back in the 1980s, but wanted to try something new.

Back then, they had snagged big customers, such as the department stores Saks Fifth Avenue and Gimbels. Popcorn had flown off the shelves — albeit too fast.

“It was great initially,” Don Jr. said. “But then it became, ‘Saks wants 500 cases tomorrow,’ and it was like, ‘Excuse me, that’ll take us two weeks. We’ve got to make the popcorn, we’ve got to pack it.’ It got to the point where we just soured on it.”

Since then, Don Jr. says he has been cautious about expanding too fast and buying into the business mentality of growth, growth, growth. After all, he says, the shop can only pop so much popcorn in a given day. He’s making enough money (although he wouldn’t disclose how much). What’s the point in always wanting more?

“We only have so much space,” he said. “Business is steady and at this point, it’s about quality.”

Instead, a few years ago, the company shifted its focus to fall and winter fundraisers that help keep the family business going well into January.

“The season used to be from Memorial Day to the start of September,” said Scot Wessels, who began working at Fisher’s Ocean City in 1985. “But things have really snowballed. Now we are open every day for most of the year.”

The shop has revived its tradition of military orders, too — a practice Fisher’s grandfather started in the 1950s. Thousands of pounds of popcorn have been shipped off to military bases in Europe and Asia, and, more recently, to Iraq and Afghanistan. Fisher recounts the time a customer sent popcorn to a son in Pakistan — it took nine months to arrive, but when it got there, the troops said it was as fresh as it had ever been.

Fisher’s Popcorn has built a following of loyal beachgoers and visitors who stop by once a year, every year, to stock up on popcorn. Many say they take back a bucket for housesitters, colleagues, family members — and in at least one instance, their mailman. Some, such as Sue Cornell of Laurel, ship containers of Fisher’s to grandchildren who are away at college.

But not everybody is impressed by the company’s 76-year-old recipe.

“I don’t like it,” said Allison Delozier, 10, who was sitting on a bench across from the Fisher’s in Bethany Beach. “My dad loves it, but I like milkshakes better.”

Even so, many summer mornings, crowds have lined up to buy popcorn before the shops open at 9. The busiest time, Fisher’s employees said, is Saturday morning, when most week-long vacation rentals end.

On those days, “the line for Fisher’s goes out the door, down the street and into the parking lot,” Martin said.

Phil Spare was one of those people in line a few Saturdays ago. It was his last day on the beach, and he was making the rounds: First Fisher’s for a tub of caramel popcorn, then DB Fries for fried clam strips.

“There are just certain things I have to have when I’m down here,” he said, adding that he had bought an extra bucket of popcorn to take back to Baltimore.

“The big question,” he added, “is whether there’s going to be any left by the time we get home. Maybe we’ll have to strap it to the roof of the car.”

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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