Weekend Story: La Verne’s Kernal John Norman is the Southland’s Undisputed King of Pop

July 25, 2009
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kettle-cornCall him “The Kernel” or the “The King of Pop.” John Norman doesn’t much care about titles. He’s too busy selling kettle popcorn to notice. By the hundreds and thousands, people line up for his deliciously addictive sweet and salty popcorn at Knott’s Berry Farm, San Manuel, the California Speedway and a dozen other big-ticket venues around town. Last week, fans were munching on his corn at the Milan-Chelsea soccer match in the Rose Bowl. Today, they’re gobbling it up at the Fish Fest at the Verizon Amphitheater. Among his fans is Nicole Ritchie and Detroit pitcher Nate Robinson. He once shipped a dozen cases to Billy Bob Thornton in London.

He doesn’t stoop to conquer street fairs any more. La Verne’s King of Pop — riding the success of his “magic mushroom” type kernels — is much too big now for those small gigs.

Every kernel that his crews pop (he rarely pops himself anymore), Norman makes more money. He literally cooks up cash by the kettle. It takes three minutes to whip up an eight-bag batch. At $7 or $8 for a large bag, that’s $56 or $64 every three minutes.

“Some days,” John said, “the kettle runs for 4 or 5 hours straight. We never turn it off.”

There was a time, however, when John was a little pauper (popper). His story is the classic American Dream.

After his sophomore year in college, he drove out to California from his home state of Michigan. He still remembers the day, October 22, 1982. He had $275 to his name. After six months, the one friend he knew out here was transferred to Atlanta, so he rented a room from a family. The following year on New Year’s Eve, he met his wife Sandi, and not long after, three kids, J.J., Eric and Kevin, followed. The financial responsibilities were piling up.

John was selling for L.A. Cellular. It was the dawn of the cell phone era. On his way out from South Pasadena to Pomona to call on an account, he saw a big banner promoting San Dimas’s Western Days. On the weekend, he brought the family and they sampled the vendors’ various treats, but their favorite was the shaved ices.

“We bought 10 right there,” John said. He took the vendor’s business card.

Flipping through his rolodex two years later, John saw the card and called the vendor who said he was ready to sell his business. John bought it for $30,000.

“I overpaid,” John said.norman

But one good account came from it, Bates Nut Farm in Valley Center in San Diego County. John kept his day job peddling cell phones and on weekends he sold shaved ices at Little League games, school carnivals and his once-a-year-gig at Bates Nut Farm.

On his fifth year at Bates, an Arizona man showed up popping and selling kettle corn.

“That was the first time I ever tried it, the first time I ever heard of it,” John recalled. “I thought it was the greatest thing. I brought home a bag to Sandi. I said this stuff is awesome.”

The very next weekend while John was selling his shaved ices at the Pomona antique swap meet, he saw a vendor selling kettle corn.

“They had no clue what they were doing,” John said. “They had no where to sell it. There were frustrated with the whole thing. They just wanted to get rid of their stuff.”

John snapped up their equipment for $3,000. He loaded up his truck and rattled home with a kettle, a big cast iron pot and a bin on which the pot sat.  On Monday, he called the manager for the Upland street fair, where he already sold his shaved ices, and told her he had a new product he wanted to sell. John was demonstrating two key entrepreneurial qualities. He recognized opportunity and he acted fast.

“That was my first kettle corn account,” John said. It would not be his last.

“From there, it just snowballed. “I started doing other street fairs and high school football games. The first few years I did all the popping myself. I didn’t trust anyone else to pop the corn.”

At the time, John was still holding down his day job, but it became an increasingly difficult juggling act.

“One day my boss asked me where I was, and I didn’t know what to tell him,” John said. “I was out buying popcorn and oil and sugar and all the things for my own business. I just realized at that point I could just do the shaved ice and kettle corn business and not have to work for anyone else. It was becoming too hard to hide.”

Fortunately, John had help, with Sandi and the boys, ready to pitch in. Sandi is also an interior designer with a stylistic eye for making cute, creative signs that play on the venues where they’re working. Little roses adorn their menu boards at the Rose Bowl, for example. At USC, they sell a “Fight On” size bag of kettle corn. At UCLA, fans eat Bruin corn.

“Sandi and I have that yin and yang thing going,” John said. “She was supportive when I quit my job and told I was going to do this full time. She’s always been there for me. Having your wife as your backbone, standing by you when you weren’t making money — that kind of support is invaluable. Having three sons to help get the business off the ground was key, too. They’ve been a big part of the business and still work for me now. You can’t go very far unless you have your family behind you.”

Getting your kids involved in the family business early helped teach them the value of a dollar.

When we first started in the business, if we wanted to buy something, we equated it all to how many shaved ices it was, or how many bags of popcorn it cost, John said. “If you’re going to buy something for $100, it would be, ‘Wow, that’s only 25 bags of kettle corn.’ That’s how we used to think. ‘How many snow cones do we have to sell to buy that?’”

normanpopThe Kernel no longer counts in snow cones or bags of popcorn. By landing the then Blockbuster Pavilion (now San Manuel) account in Devore, sales started ratcheting up quickly, and have continued to pop higher every year. Part of the reason is the general managers at several Southern California venues move frequently, and retain John as their kettle corn guy.

John doesn’t give them any reason not to. His personality is as infectious as his popcorn is addictive. He dines and plays golf with them and remembers them during the holidays. It’s a winning formula he continues to apply wherever they go and wherever he goes. Bags of John’s kettle corn also sold at Whole Foods before the company bought out that segment of his business.

John doesn’t just mint money. He has overhead. Typically, at the large venues he operates on a 55/45 split. He gets the 55% of gross sales. At some venues, he pays a direct sponsorship fee, which can run as much as $35,000 a year. He’s also seen the price of his main commodities rise sharply. The price of corn oil went from $10 to $44 for a 35-pound box last year. Popcorn soared from $7 to $26 for a $50 pound bag. Sugar has been the most stable commodity, ticking up from $12 to $18 a bag.

There are also employee costs, not to mention all the behind-the-scenes work of scheduling, buying supplies, and setting up and breaking down. He has constantly upgraded his equipment over the years and owns a large truck, trailer, and four kettles to keep everything popping.

The work can also be hazardous at times. A few years ago at Belmont Shore in Long Beach, one of his large stainless steel kettles slid off the back of his truck and smashed several fingers. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where pins had to be placed in his fingers.

To keep his margins up, John has passed on many of those costs to his consumers. His price for a medium bag of popcorn went from $3 a bag when he started out to $7 or $8 a bag today, depending on the venue he’s at.

On the 4th of July, John and company were popping at a half-dozen events. His busiest season is September through November. College football is in high gear. He does the USC and UCLA games. Then there’s the month-long Halloween Haunt at Knott’s Berry Farm. That scares up more business.

There are, of course, many vendors now selling kettle corn. There’s even a microwavable version sold in stores. Somebody recently told John there was a vendor on Santa Monica pier that was his “new competition.”

“I don’t feel I really have any competition,” John said. “I’m in the venues I want to be in. I couldn’t really do more than what I’m already doing. Other than leave the state, where else am I going to go? I have good venues. I have good people who work for me. I have good relationships with the management at these different venues.”

At the same time, he recognizes there is no McDonald’s-style kettle corn conglomerate in his business. “Everybody does their own thing; everybody has their own recipe. He’s even gotten use to imitators. “My company’s old name was “Now You’re Poppin’. Simply the Best.” One guy comes along and names his business, “What’s Poppin’? Absolutely the Best.” John’ new name is the California Kettle Corn Company.

All this corn business, of course, is making him frightfully rich. It’s afforded his family a comfortable lifestyle, which now includes ownership of four houses. “When you work for yourself, you don’t have a 401k retirement plan. You can’t do this forever,” said John, now 47. “You have to invest and diversify into other things.”

He’s also been blessed that his product is recession proof. Each of the last two years, his sales have increased 40%.

“Thank God, knock on wood, the economy hasn’t hurt us,” John said. “People still go out. Kettle corn is still an inexpensive item. People at a concert or sporting event are out to have a good time. They’ll buy a $7 bag of popcorn or a $7 funnel cake (he sells those, too, at select venues). It’s comfort food. And it’s a big bag. You can feed your whole family for $7.”

John says he’s never had a bad event. “I’ve never done an event where I lost money,” John said.  “I mean I’ve done a few where I broke even and didn’t make money, but Thank god, I’ve never done one where I actually lost money.”

One secret to his success is he understands that it’s not enough to have secured the venue. You also have to secure a good location.

“It’s still location, location, location,” John said. “If you’re at the back corner of the stadium as opposed to the 50-yard line, you’re not going to see the same kinds of sales. If you’re put behind another booth, you better plan on getting 14-foot poles, so people can see your sign from far away.”

John, fortunately, doesn’t have a visibility problem. At Verizon, he’s stationed, where people walk up the drive way, by the VIP section, next to the bathrooms and main entrance to all the seats. At the Rose Parade post-parade at Victory Park in Pasadena, John is stationed right where the cars have to turn around.

“They practically have to turn right into my booth,” John said. “It’s like I could hand them a bag without their ever leaving their car. They tried to stick me in the food court just 20 yards away, but everybody was dying over there. People aren’t going to walk out of their way to get your products. You need visibility, plus you need to be convenient to people.”

To keep his feet on the ground, he plays in two softball leagues a week and an age 40-and-over men’s basketball league. “I used to ride a Harley,” John said, “but I don’t have that anymore. I ride dirt bikes.” He also served as an assistant JV basketball coach at Damien.

He also donates about 25% of his proceeds from working local football games, including those at Bonita High School. During the Christmas holidays, he also sets up his kettles in front of Chino City Hall and gives away free bags of kettle corn while people wait in line for free food and toys as part of Isaiah’s Rock, a local food bank and ministry that serves up to 8,000 people.

John doesn’t pop anymore. “I’m not doing all the physical things I used to do. Now I’d rather hire one extra person so I can oversee things instead of actually being one of the crew. But I’ll still jump in. If I got a long line, I don’t want people to get out of line; you have to do what you gotta do.”

“But I’m still the fasted bagger in the company. At $7, $7, $7, $7, you’re filling it up.”

When John’s not filling it up, he’s looking for the next big thing or a way to improve his own business. He’s looking at automated poppers that would cut down on his labor costs. But he worries that by moving away from the old fashioned popping, he’ll be losing some of the spectacle and romance associated with cooking kettle corn.

“I still don’t know what I want to do,” John said about his future.

After all, he didn’t grow up wanting to The Kernal or The King of Pop.

“What I tell my kids is, whatever you’re going to do doesn’t have to be what you are going to do the rest of your life. But at least get out there and do things. And while you’re out there doing things, your eyes will be open to all these other things, and something will come along. You’ll find your niche.

“If you go do it, it doesn’t mean you’re committing to it for the next 20 years. Just go do it. If you don’t like, you don’t like it.

Another thing I do is I always ask people what they do for a living,” John said. “I just always in conversation if it’s someone new I met or whatever. I’ll just kind of ask them, ‘Well, what do you do for a living?’ You never know.

He employed the technique at an Angels baseball game once, striking up a conversation with a man sitting next to him. About a week later, John was working as a sales manager for his frozen drink company.

John is equally willing to share information. If people want to go into business for themselves as he did, he suggests starting small at street fairs and school carnivals. He recommends selling food items because all of his fellow food vendors continue to do well.

“Sell something that people can’t readily get or make themselves,” he advised. “People don’t usually make garlic fries at home. People don’t usually make tri-tip sandwiches at home, they don’t usually make sausage and pepper sandwiches or roasted corn or baked potatoes with all the fixings. That’s not something most families make. They don’t make kettle corn, they don’t make funnel cakes, they don’t make shaved ice.

“Fresh squeezed orange juice is not going to sell. Another guy was selling wraps. They’re good and healthy, but when people are at a football game, they want the sloppy Philly cheese steak or the garlic fries with the cold beer. They don’t really care about having a wrap. They might sell in West L.A. or the beach where they’re a little more health conscious.”

John said he might go into consulting because he says he has this uncanny sixth sense of determining what businesses can make it and which ones won’t. It’s not a boast, he has the track record to prove it. When you think about it, who wouldn’t pay John a thousand dollars or whatever before investing thousands of their own money in a storefront or other business?

He might scale back to working 18 days a year, working six college football games a year and a dozen swap meets.

When you’re The Kernal and the King of Pop, you get to make those decisions.

For now, he may not have the world on a string, but he certainly has it in the bag.



In the 1700s, kettle corn was introduced to colonial palates in the Inited States. It is referenced in the diaries of Dutch Settlers in Pennsylvania circa 1776. It was a special treat often consumed at fairs or other festive occasions. The corn is cooked for maximum taste in iron kettles and then sweetened with sugar or honey before adding salt. The combination was widely popular in the early 1800s but fell from wide usage during the 1900s. In the early 2000s, it has made something of a comeback in America, especially at 19th century living history events. As of the 21st century, it is cooked and sold at fairs and flea markets throughout the United States, especially art and craft shows. The microwave version is sold at grocery stores by Orville Redenbacher’s, Act II, and other brands.

3 Responses to “Weekend Story: La Verne’s Kernal John Norman is the Southland’s Undisputed King of Pop”

  1. Wow this is one great article!

  2. Pete, very good article and very interesting how John got started in the popcorn business. Keep up the good writing and the good work.

  3. Way to go John!!! We are proud to be your “neighbors” and friends. Keep up the good work !!!

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