Sathyam theatre's popcorn turns 15! We trace its roots...

Sathyam’s iconic flavour-it-yourself popcorn turns 15. We trace the story of how Nebraskan corn became a Chennai staple

January 09, 2018 06:07 pm | Updated February 02, 2018 07:35 am IST

‘FIND THE BEST POPCORN IN THE WORLD’ read the first task assigned to Bhavesh Shah a few weeks into his first ever job, around 15 years ago. Sounds simple? The line-up of films was exciting and the footfalls were great. The future looked bright for Chennai’s Sathyam Theatre, on the verge of a makeover. “But we were constantly facing quality and logistical issues with the food. Either we stuck it out with our suppliers or we built our own place,” remembers Shah, currently Head of Experiences at SPI Cinemas, adding, “Those were our only choices.”

That was when Shah, along with the company’s head Kiran Reddy, visited a cinema convention in Hong Kong. They chanced upon the stall of an American farmer-owned co-operative, Preferred Popcorn, that specialised in a variety of high yield corn. “The next thing, I was on a flight to Nebraska. It was -18 degrees when I landed... too cold for anything to grow. But I learnt how everything worked and we negotiated our first-ever shipment.”

The company continues to supply popcorn seeds to the theatre to this day. “What I love about working with them is how it’s not become a corporate set up. It has remained farmer-run where the CEO is himself on the tractor during planting season.”

Higher yield, better taste

Shah underscores the importance of the popcorn being ‘high yield’. “High-yielding corn leads to better-tasting popcorn. The low-yielding variety, like the kind we find here, tends to be dense and thick and doesn’t taste as great.”

On the same trip, Shah also discovered the popcorn flavours that have now become a part of Chennai’s popular culture.

“In Chicago, I was placing an order to import machines from Cretors, the company that invented the popcorn machine. They introduced me to a couple of college graduates who had just started Kernel Season’s, a brand of popcorn seasoning. They were struggling to survive and had chosen to give out their flavours for free to big theatre chains. But they were slowly seeing the demand grow.” Despite higher costs to bring them to India, Shah stuck it out and brought them here.

The seasoning has remained the same these 15 years, retaining its essentially American flavours.

“A couple of years after we first introduced them, we got a local company to start making the flavours without changing the essence. Whenever we’ve tried to make changes, there has been major backlash... our customers take it very personally.”

SPI is in the process of re-introducing their ranch flavour ‘back, on public demand’ and also a new wasabi flavour.

They will also be placing automatic seasoning dispensers across their cinemas. “We needed to... it’s a cleanliness thing. And also because we’re tired of having customers flick our seasoning shakers,” he laughs.

DIY popcorn

The personal connect customers have with the popcorn, he believes, is because “everyone has their own recipe”. “People become chefs at the seasoning counter. It’s like they all have a mental ratio. All flavours, no flavours, a little seasoning, a lot of seasoning... all’s fair with popcorn,” he says, adding that 40% of his customers still prefer unflavoured, unbuttered popcorn.

But other cities do not seem to share the same enthusiasm for Sathyam’s flavour-it-yourself popcorn. For customers in Warangal, these flavours at first seemed a bit alien, with many of them sprinkling them over nachos, sandwiches and even puffs. “In Mumbai, though, they just don’t seem to like the concept. They don’t want to take the effort to flavour their popcorn... we might go back on our concept in Mumbai.”

Another factor that makes Sathyam’s popcorn inherently Chennai is the circumstances under which it was conceptualised. For theatre owners in Tamil Nadu, where there is a cap on ticket prices, selling food is of high priority. “Our food needed to stand out to bring audiences to the theatres... we couldn’t have afforded increasing salaries and costs otherwise.”

Popcorn man

And in a way, popcorn has gone on to play a big part in Shah’s life as well. “My mother had taught us how to make popcorn and I remember making it in a kadai as a kid, before watching movies on TV.” Shah adds that it was also a childhood decision to include popcorn in his menu, if he were ever to start a restaurant. For the person who brought the city its favourite popcorn, the obvious question is popped: how does he like his popcorn? “I don’t really need any seasoning... I like my popcorn plain,” he concludes ironically.

 

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