A Publication of WTVP

From financial services to gourmet goodies, a passion for popcorn means business in Morton.

Ask Greg Nichols his favorite popcorn flavor, and you’ll probably get a different answer depending on the week. “Right now it’s white cheddar,” he says. “But it used to be thin mint.”

Nichols has been a longtime lover of popcorn. He scopes out popcorn shops when he travels, and his favorite stop is the Great American Popcorn Co. in Galena, Illinois. His passion for popcorn (and a bit of a sweet tooth) led Nichols to open the Great American Popcorn Co. in Morton.

A Rainbow of Flavors
An intoxicatingly sweet and salty smell wafts out from the Great American Popcorn Co. storefront on Main Street. Inside, a wall of floor-to-ceiling covers the length of the shop. On any given day, there could be a combination of 60 unique flavors on that wall. In all, Nichols estimates he has 250 different popcorn recipes from which to choose.

There’s a rainbow array of flavors and colors out on the floor: classics mixed with new batches the store is testing out. Vibrant and tangy raspberry-lemonade popcorn sits next to the Morton Mix, a caramel-and-pumpkin flavor requested by customers year-round. You can find intensely sweet wedding cake, spicy Texas tornado (which, Nichols points out, pairs well with beer), and the cheddar-and-caramel Main Street Mix. Pure Evil is a customer favorite, and it’s easy to taste why: a caramel-based popcorn is drizzled with milk chocolate, white chocolate and caramel, and combined with Oreo crumbles.

There is also gourmet fudge, candy and ice cream for sale. The selection of fudge is local and fresh, thanks to an offer from fudge maker and Morton teacher, Edie Russell. “I got a phone call totally out of the blue,” Nichols says. “She had her own recipes and her own equipment and wanted to sell fudge at the store. It worked out really well.” The fudge flavors vary, but Snickers and dark chocolate sea salt are among the best sellers.

The chocolate and candy varieties come from four vendors, each hand-picked by Nichols depending on their specialty. Among the selections are gourmet chocolates, caramel apples, chocolate-dipped Oreos and pop cones. Nichols carries the same ice cream in the Morton shop that is sold at the Galena store. It’s a super-premium, hand-dipped variety from the Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream Company in Madison, Wisconsin. There are more than 30 varieties available daily, and the selection changes throughout the year. Of course, pumpkin ice cream is dutifully stocked in the fall, ready for the Morton Pumpkin Festival.

Financially Savvy and Fun
This isn’t Nichols’ first business; he is also an owner and financial advisor with Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. in Morton. He kept his idea to open a popcorn store to himself for more than a year. “I didn’t even tell my wife,” he explains. “For me, it had to make sense financially. When I finally told her, she said, ‘It has to be fun.’”

Nichols got started by cold-calling his favorite Galena popcorn shop. “I think they have the best popcorn around,” he says. “I wanted him to just come in and get us started.” To his surprise, the owner offered up his own recipes. “They’ve got 20 years of experience, and we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

Construction began in January of 2015, and by September, Nichols had opened the doors at 126 S. Main Street. Today, a team of about 20 works at the Great American Popcorn Company of Morton. Nichols stops by daily, and he’s hired a number of assistant managers to run the store during the week.

Together, the team has come up with about 10 original recipes. One of the most recent flavors, lemon pound cake, was created by employee Tammy Edwards. “She wasn’t sure if we should use it,” Nichols says. “But once I tried it, I said, ‘We have got to sell this.’ It’s that amazing.”

According to Nichols, there is nothing like this store in central Illinois. “Morton was missing something like this. I saw an opportunity, and I wanted to bring it here.”

Specialty popcorn has been a hit at corporate events, showers and other parties. He and his team find their busiest times of year during the Morton Pumpkin Festival, the Christmas season and Valentine’s Day, while the summer months are also filled with orders for weddings. Popcorn bars and favors are becoming popular with brides- and grooms-to-be throughout the region, Nichols adds. “We’re pulling from a 40-mile radius for weddings. It’s great for weddings because the popcorn drizzle can be customized to match the wedding colors.”

Bringing Popcorn Downtown
Part of the reason Nichols opened his business on Main Street was to help revitalize downtown Morton. “I’ve always wanted to get more retail downtown,” he notes. “It helps all of us and brings more foot traffic to the area.”

Although he already owned a business, retail was an entirely new arena for him, Nichols says. The transition from finance to food brought its own set of challenges. “Retail fluctuates daily, weekly, monthly… and there are so many decisions to make and vendors to deal with. It’s really about trial and error.” iBi

The Great American Popcorn Co. of Morton is open Monday through Saturday, 10am to 9pm, and Sundays, noon to 8 pm. Follow the store on Facebook for updates on flavors and new products.