MAINEVILLE, Ohio – From Cracker Jacks to jumbo buckets at the movies, Americans eat a lot of popcorn – 13 billion quarts a year – ranging from familiar brands like Orville Redenbacher to newer ones like 479°.
Enter Anna Donovan, a one-woman startup who dared to jump into the industry and carve a niche for herself. She opened Anna’s Gourmet Popcorn in Maineville last year after more than a decade in the corporate world.
“When I signed my lease last February, that’s when I turned in my notice,” Donovan said.
Donovan, who has a bachelor’s degree in food science from Purdue University, worked in research and development for various food corporations, including Wild Flavors.
As comfortable as her corporate job was, it also fanned a desire to strike out on her own.
“I was working with a lot of entrepreneurs,” Donovan said, collaborating with them to formulate an assortment of products in beverages, bakery and snacks.
It took some time, but as she processed the various products and actors in the market, she concluded: “If they can do it, I can totally do it.”
A life-changing leap
She opened her shop in April 2016 and hasn’t looked back. Business has been so strong that Donovan will open a second store in downtown Lebanon in March at 2 S. Broadway.
Taking that initial leap into entrepreneurship has changed her life, she said.
“It’s given me a lot more flexibility,” said Donovan, who has two young children. “Now I can take my kids to school and then come open my shop.”
Donovan pops non-GMO corn kernels in coconut oil and then flavors them.
“I make it fresh in small 5-gallon batches,” she said. "Everything is really fresh."
The shop carries seven flavors: birthday cake (topped with sprinkles), cheddar, caramel, downtown mix (caramel and cheddar), five alarm (mix of spice and cheddar), boom pop (blueberry, cherry and vanilla) and butter.
Donovan also offers seasonal flavors each month. For January, she has white cheddar, jalapeno white cheddar and, geared toward people trying to lose weight, slender pop.
'My passion is really science'
While at Purdue, Donovan double majored in food science and dietetics.
“My passion is really science,” she said. “I like the chemistry and biology of raw materials and what happens when you combine them and consume them inside the body. I am very interested in health and nutrition.”
Ultimately, though, she decided she was more interested in the food industry than the clinical field. Donovan, who professed her own love for popcorn, said she “ate a whole lot of popcorn” even before getting into this business.
“(Popcorn is) a whole grain snack so you don’t feel bad eating it,” she said.
Donovan’s past product development experience in flavors and formulation has come in handy She likened popcorn to beverage formulation.
“I think of popcorn like a beverage because you can flavor it and color it any way you want,” she said. “It’s such a light canvas you can do anything with it.”
Her birthday cake flavor is a hot seller, she said, and she intends to create even more innovative flavors.
“I have plans for flavors like dill pickle and piña colada popcorn,” she said. When spring comes, Donovan also plans to reprise her rainbow popcorn, crafted with a mix of cherry, blue raspberry, orange, lemon and grape flavors.
In addition to her retail store, Donovan’s popcorn is available online and at various fundraisers and festivals. Prices range from $2.99 for a small bag to $7.99 for a big one, along with one- and two-gallon refillable tins that range from $11.99 to $31.99.
“It’s been amazing how supportive everybody has been. People I didn’t even know before have reached out and helped me,” she said. “I feel like everybody wants you to succeed.”
Anna’s Gourmet Popcorn
6054 Ohio 48, Maineville.
Winter hours: Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday.
Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.