Today they’re household names, but it started with a leap of faith: “The mashgiach thought he was going to a factory, but there was the popper, on the kitchen table in our small apartment"
t was 1980, and I had recently left kollel and was working as a programmer. I was employed by another Yid from Lakewood, and we were working on software for a university near Princeton, NJ. One afternoon, my boss walked into my office holding a school magazine (there were a lot of those around, since we worked for the education sector). He was reading an article about the benefits of owning a popcorn machine and selling the snack in the school canteen. “Ephraim,” he quipped, “how would you like to go into the popcorn business?”
He was joking, but nevertheless, the idea had been planted in my head. Popcorn! I thought it over and spoke to my wife that night. We both started laughing.
At that time, kosher snacks were available, but simpler and not in such abundance as today. Potato chips, pretzels, and one brand of popcorn — packaged in a plain plastic bag — were selling in Lakewood then, but there seemed to be a gap in the market. So the next morning I started to do my homework and figure out what was involved in producing popcorn as a commercially packaged snack.
Research took a lot longer in those pre-Internet days. It was slow and tedious, involving dozens of phone calls and faxes to suppliers and discussions with the hashgachah. After lots of legwork, I ordered some plastic bags, printed labels on my office computer, and called a mashgiach down from Brooklyn, as there was no Lakewood-based hashgachah at the time. I gave them the address, and a young rav came in. He thought he was going to a factory, but there was the popper, on the kitchen table in our small apartment. He laughed and wished us “zohl zein mit mazel un hatzlachah,” checked the ingredients and the process, and we started our first run.
The first place we sold our Golden Fluff was out of a small closet in the BMG dining room. There was also the original Lakewood Co-op, maybe two or three groceries, and that was it. I would load the product into my car in bags and drive round. Soon, I saw that baruch Hashem, the product started moving. They were calling me to re-stock every other day, and I realized we had something going.
We kept popping the corn at home, enlisting a couple of helpers, and with time, we purchased a slightly larger machine. That summer, Rabbi Mordechai Betzalel Klein arrived in Lakewood to become rav of the local Satmar community, and I met with him as I felt that we needed a local hashgachah. He did his due diligence and agreed to supervise our product, and that brought about my first retail venture out of Lakewood. I took the backseat out of my 1977 Chevy Caprice, loaded up with as much popcorn as would fit, and drove to Williamsburg.
Soon after that we bought our own packaging machine, then moved into a dedicated facility. Demand was high, in Williamsburg and then soon all over Brooklyn. It was very exciting, especially the second round of sales. The first time, you’re bringing a new product, but the second time, when stores are calling in for orders, you’ve moved up.
We were always enthusiastic about our product, but I had to be prudent. I held onto my programming job for another two years, until I was ready to go full-time. We began to retail barbeque-flavored popcorn, then onion and garlic. I did a lot of research into what was out there in the world of snacks, and in the mid-1980s we inaugurated our Golden Fluff potato sticks, which complement our popcorn to this day. In the 1990s, we were the first to produce kosher marshmallows, and the range of snacks is still expanding.
Ephraim Schwinder is founder and president of Golden Fluff snacks.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 830)
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