It started with a birthday. Ella Kucera was turning eight years old, and a safari-themed party required a few key elements: Animal-inspired attire, the local zoo as a backdrop, and a fitting snack.
Her mom Jill Santa-Lucia, a career caterer, knew a thing or two about throwing a banger event, particularly for her daughter’s birthdays. For a choice of snack and party favor, she settled on a crowd-pleasing treat for all ages—candy coated popcorn. She coated puffed corn in crumbled chocolate-sandwiched cookies and playfully called it Zebra Pop. The treat won over parents and children. Moms called after the party: “What was that popcorn?!” and “Can I get more of it from you?”
The positive response motivated Santa-Lucia to incorporate the popcorn into her catering offerings—it made the perfect munchie to accompany desserts and, when dressed with savory flavors, presented an addictive addition to the hors d’oeuvres course. Nostalgic treats inspired the popcorn flavors along with Kucera’s own discerning palate: A Sea Salty Toffee put an updated twist to the traditional caramel corn, and the Campfire Pop incorporated graham cracker crumbs, chocolate coating, and mini marshmallows to give popcorn a s’mores makeover. Additionally, Santa-Lucia created custom flavors for the themes of various events. An Art in Bloom event, for example, inspired a fresh and sweet elderberry and citrus pop.
She continued experimenting with flavors. Catering demand, however, kept her from exploring the possibility of taking the increasingly popular pop to the next level.
Covid-19 changed everything. When people stopped gathering, and catering hit a momentary stand-still, the mother and daughter sat down and decided to take the now-or-never chance to develop their popcorn brand. Assisted by their late family friend Susan Holguin, they launched their line of Ella’s Popcorn with imaginative sweet and savory flavors.
Online retail began in October 2020, and holiday orders soon started rushing in. The popcorn was a popular choice that corporate clients used for gifting. Around that same time, La Farm Bakery, based in Cary, North Carolina, started carrying Ella’s Campfire Pop for retail. The product drew plenty of attention of the state’s Triangle community.
One woman in particular fell in love with it. She did PR work with Hollywood clients, and she had to share her newfound snack. For Valentine’s Day, she put together Gal-entine’s Day packages for her female clientele and included the Campfire Pop, which the company custom labeled S’mor’gasm for the event. When Ella’s Popcorn hit the mailboxes of movie producers, actresses, famous housewives, and television anchors, online ordering exploded.
Kucera, now in college, helps with packaging orders and representing the popcorn brand when she’s at home. Jill continues with crafting new flavors that using air-popped popcorn that’s been baked and drizzled with artisan products, such as chocolate from Paris and organic dried fruits. The recipes have grown to include flavors that reflect Kucera’s changing preferences, ranging from Chai to Matcha and Coffee.
“We just want to keep people happy,” Santa-Lucia says.