Coming from a Minnesota corn-farming family, Bjorn Quenemoen wanted to start a popcorn company as a way to stay connected to his roots after moving to New York. He held on to the idea for a decade until one day “my friend Jamie came to me, he’s an artist and an inventor, and he suggested we do it as a joint venture,” Quenemoen, co-founder of BjornQorn, told FoodNavigator-USA.
At the time, his former college roommate Jamie O’Shea was working on a project to develop cheap, solar-powered cooking contraptions, with the grand goal of bringing the design to people in developing countries that have limited access to clean firewood. “There are a lot of people trying to bring solar cookers to [developing countries], but for the most part they’re still too expensive,” Quenemoen said.
The partnership with O’Shea was what Quenemoen called the “icing on the cake” that finally pushed him to realize his dream of starting a popcorn company. “It made the project all the more interesting and exciting to dive into—so in 2012 we incorporated the business, and we started selling the product in the spring of 2013.”
Using solar energy
There are two main ways the company uses solar energy to deliver its product. “For our pilot plant, which is still operating in the Hudson Valley, we use an experimental solar system where we have giant hemispheric dishes that we install in the ground [with] reflecting material,” Quenemoen said.
Kettles with bottoms painted black are hung above the hemisphere, and the light transforms into heat, popping the corn.
For the second method, to be used in a facility that the duo just closed on, it’s much simpler. “We just install as many solar panels as we need to operate our business,” he added. The pilot hemispheric contraption is kept for continuing research, while the second one is to help the company produce in a larger scale.
The spring growth spurt
Non-GMO corn is sourced from Quenemoen’s father’s farm in Minnesota, as well as some growers in the Hudson Valley. For the brand’s early years, products were distributed in boutique stores and smaller restaurants throughout New York.
“What’s great about these small stores is that they curated their products, so they’re enthusiastic about bringing you in and if they bring you in, they’re going to tell people about you,” Quenemoen said. Meanwhile in bigger stores, “buyers receive tons of products, and shelvers are shelving tons of products, so it’s hard to standout.”
Then there was the novel manufacturing process, which meant only a smaller amount of orders was manageable. But then word of mouth increased the brand’s awareness, buyers were intrigued by the “sun-popped” process, and many became return buyers because of its flavor (the popcorn is sprinkled with nutritional yeast).
“Our business increased by about 90%, almost double, compared to last year, and that all happened in a burst of its own back in the spring,” Quenemoen said. “We went from having pretty level sales, and in about two months, our sales doubled—there were times in the summer where Jamie would look at me and say: ‘Wow this is intense.’”
Big contributions to that growth spurt was a deal with upscale international bakery and café chain Le Pain Quotidien, which is stocking bags of BjornQorn to sell in its stores, as well as with Ohio-based Jeni’s Ice Cream, which used the popcorn as an ingredient in one of its summer ice cream flavors.
“We’re almost at our limit at our current scale,” Quenemoen said. He hopes that with increasing awareness of the brand, consumers and other manufacturers will pay more attention to the role solar energy can play in our world. “It’s not super energy-intensive to pop popcorn, but we think that what we do as a food company, by utilizing solar energy, can be a model for other companies out there.”