Kettle corn business beginning to pop

North Country Kettle Corn, based in Ridgway, has been growing one kernel at a time since Jaime and Diane Leitzel opened the business in the spring of 2009.The couple came up with the idea of starting a business as a way to alleviate their empty nest syndrome. They traveled to numerous events around the tri-state area in 2008, seeking out a potential new business venture, eventually deciding on kettle corn. "We looked at what we could do to be out among those activities. We thought of the expenses, start-up costs, employees and investment in equipment," Jaime said. "We are fortunate to have family who help."Combining a mixture of both sweet and salty, kettle corn has deep roots in Pennsylvania, having been referenced in the diaries of Dutch settlers as far back as 1776. Currently, Jaime produces massive batches of kettle corn three times per week inside a 160-quart gas-fired kettle. A standard batch takes approximately two minutes to produce. He explained that what makes their product stand out from other kettle corn is the top-quality ingredients they use, which include corn, oil, sugar and salt; and their careful screening process by which they separate any kernels and burnt popcorn from the batch.Jaime said that their kettle corn has very little byproduct, which in terms of kettle corn, means leftover popcorn pieces found at the bottom of the bags. "Getting the right recipe is an intricate as developing film," he explained of the tedious process. He also researches and tastes other kettle corn products on the market."I have reviewed kettle corn from amusement parks, sports stadiums and other places, and theirs doesn't hold a candle to what we do," Jaime said.Locally, the Leitzels' tasty creations are being sold at The Shop on Main in Ridgway, Goetz's Flower Shop on Erie Ave. in St. Marys and in the Elk Country Visitors Center gift shop in Benezette. Customers are also welcome to place phone orders by calling 772-5142.The Leitzels have recently expanded their offerings with such sweet flavors as chocolate drizzle, white chocolate drizzle, peanut butter drizzle and white chocolate over cinnamon; and more savory flavors with wing ding and spicy southern, which tastes similar to a barbecue potato chip."It's not just about eating kettle corn, it's an experience," Jaime said.North Country offers a two-quart small bag, four-quart medium bag, six-quart large bag and a 25-quart party bag. The typical shelf life of kettle corn is between 6-10 days or up to 90 days if the product is purchased in a resealable foil bag.In addition to numerous local events, including the Ridgway Carnival, where they donate a high percentage of their proceeds to the local fire department, the Tasting in the Wilds wine/culinary event, the St. Leo Church picnic, the Flavors of Fall event and the Elk County Fair, the Leitzels also take their business on the road. They travel to such events as the Penn State Blue-White game in the spring, the Hazen Flea Market, where they may be found seven months out of the year, the Brockway Independence Day Celebration, Clarion's Autumn Leaf Festival, Laurel Fest in Brookville, Penn State DuBois Open House, and numerous car shows and corporate events.The couple is in the beginning stages of planning a schedule for indoor and winter events. They recently participated in the Lunch with Santa event in Weedville and delivered 75 bags of kettle corn they sold to Kane Hospital.The business also works with area organizations on various fundraisers. They recently completed a project with the Ridgway Area High School football boosters, where they sold approximately 50 small bags of fresh kettle corn at the concession stand during each of the school's home football games. "We tailor fundraisers to the needs of the group. We do all the work, provide custom order forms and deliver the product," Jaime said. "It's not a product everyone does all the time, so it's unique, local and arguably a healthier snack."This year, the Leitzels began selling their product at Penn State home football games. As part of a nine-game contract, the business was provided booth space along Curtin Road, across the road from the front entrance of the Bryce Jordan Center. "The Penn State games are a tremendous effort, as we are up at 4 a.m. for noon games and get home as late as 2 a.m. for night games," Jaime said. "We do better during night games. Next year's home schedule should be better than this year's."Among one of the many events Leitzel is working toward is the Nittany Antique Machine Show, held each September in Centre Hall, which attracts a crowd of between 50,000-100,000 visitors over a four-day period. He is also researching NASCAR events in the Poconos, car shows in Carlisle and many more."Some of these events result in leads to other events," he added. "We are working on getting into big events of 50,000 visitors and up. These are difficult to get in, you need to have networked with the right people as many of them already have their chosen vendors."For more information on this story, see the Jan. 13 edition of The Daily Press.