TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — The smell of freshly popped corn wafts through the quiet halls of Midtown Pointe mall in Tupelo and dimly lit professional businesses line the walls. Out of conjunction with the modern, sophisticated surroundings, but nestled in a tiny food court at the heart of the building is The CaramelCorn Shop.
Antique Coca-Cola signs laboriously collected from flea markets over the years once lined the walls of the establishment, which looks like the kind of classic, mom-and-pop snack shops one could imagine once populated small towns throughout America.
But the CaramelCorn Shop is a bastion of a Tupelo from a bygone era, out of sync with the surrounding medical businesses: and that’s what makes it special.
The shop provides mall shoppers with an old-fashioned cardboard box filled to the brim with warm popcorn, fresh from an original, giant 1970s-style popcorn kettle, and covered in salty-sweet caramel made in-house.
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Although the previous owners sold the shop’s original antique signs, the packaging and the product attempt to transport shoppers to the ball games and movie theaters of past eras.
Jason Harris took over the lease of the CaramelCorn Shop at Midtown Pointe from his aunt and uncle last month.
Midtown Pointe Mall at 499 Gloster Creek opened in Tupelo June of 2012 and largely features medical business and services with a small food court inside.
Despite the quiet atmosphere, the mall is actually currently filled up, with only one open space available, Ken Harris said.Current owner Jason Harris’s aunt and uncle, Barbara and Titus Harris, opened the shop in 1972, and owned the shop for 45 years.
The copper popcorn kettle used in the store is the original model from when the shop opened, and the recipes have never been changed.
Jason Harris’ father, Ken Harris, said the shop has been passed down from a father to a son for the last two generations.
Harris grew up in and around the shop when his aunt and uncle were owners.
Growing up around the shop from an early age helped Harris develop his work ethic and cemented his interest in continuing the family business of the shop’s primary product: popcorn.
Family man Jason Harris, his wife Tara and their three children will be making minor renovations to the shop into early 2018 and hope to grow the business by becoming more mobile.
Harris said many folks his age do not know the shop exists and some think the business has moved.
“We would like to get out there to younger generations who don’t realize we’re here,” Harris said.
Harris’ mother, Helen Harris, said the popcorn business was once a popular location in Tupelo.
“It used to be a really booming business, a really popular place a long time ago,” Helen Harris said.
Ken Harris said although newer clientele do not always know about the shop, there are many faithful return customers who visit from other towns and even across state lines.
The shop also recently expanded its business to include shipping, and will send boxes of popcorn all over the country, with particularly high volumes of business during the holidays.
“We still have a place for customers who’ve known it for generations and still come by faithfully. We had a lady drive in from Pontotoc yesterday, and one in this morning from North Carolina,” Ken Harris said.
The family-owned business gets hands-on with its customers, and has accommodated those who have travelled to the shop for popcorn but were unable to come in due to physical ailments, by providing curbside service.
“Whatever it takes,” Ken Harris said.
Besides changing leadership, the shop is currently in the process of updating its website to expand shipping options and reach out to new customers online.
“We’re revamping it so people can order online,” Jason Harris said.
There are a growing number of gourmet snack businesses in Northeast Mississippi, from popsicles to cupcakes to alternative-flavored popcorns, but Harris said classic flavors still sell.
“At CaramelCorn, my uncle experimented a couple of years ago with these kind of odd flavors, but this is what sells, and you may make a batch of watermelon-flavored popcorn, one person buys it, and the rest goes stale.odd flavors are hard to work with,” Jason Harris said.
Corn kernels are put into the kettle and hand-popped before being mixed with flavors, but not much else is known about the process, Ken Harris said the recipes are a shop secret.
Although the shop’s recipes remain secret, Jason Harris said the process of making the popcorn is not, and that process has not changed since the shop opened.
“There is machinery nowadays that will do all of the work for you but it’s not the same, it just doesn’t taste the same…we have multiple paddles that are worn down to nothing that my aunt and uncle in their days wore down, but it’s been made this way since day one,” Jason Harris said.
The CaramelCorn Shop will sell most of its product during the winter months, those classic metal tins of popcorn do particularly well during the holidays, and nearby businesses within the mall will frequent the shop for Christmas or retirement gift items as well, often waiting until the last minute to get the popcorn as fresh as possible.
“People have been calling to order tins for their employees,” Tara Harris said.
Ken Harris said the shop may put together around 20 tins of popcorn per day for Christmas orders for folks living in locations like Arkansas, Pennsylvania or New York.
The shop receives a lot of its traffic from families, especially children, but the owners say the smell of the popcorn is what brings in customers.
The shop sells homemade caramel apples in addition to the traditional three popcorn flavors of caramel, butter and cheese, as well as other snacks, such as hotdogs and soft drinks, but hopes to expand its menu options possibly in the next year.
In addition to energizing the shop’s online presence, Harris hopes to bring the shop more into the public eye, whether that means trucking the old family popcorn cart to local community events or doing pop-up collaborations with other businesses. The Harris family’s CaramelCorn Shop hopes to continue sharing their passion for popcorn with Tupelo in the coming years.