Jean Arnold, owner and founder of 479° Popcorn, at the company’s Richmond District heaquarters
Jean Arnold has always loved to cook. She grew up in Korea, and came to the US at the age of 11. She later pursued a culinary degree at the Cordon-Bleu in London. But rather than cooking up rich entrees and desserts, Arnold turned her culinary passion to an everyday snack food – popcorn.
Growing up, she shared popcorn with her family. Her mom always insisted on organic popcorn made in a sturdy stove-top popper that she’d hand crank until the kernels were ready.
In 2003, Arnold moved to the Richmond District and took over the kitchen in her home’s in-law unit to start experimenting with high quality, flavored popcorns. She sourced organic, heirloom corn from a family farm in Sacramento and began creating popcorn that was delicious enough to be given as gifts.
In the fall of 2008, she launched 479 Degrees online and a few orders came in from friends and family. The company’s numeric name comes form the optimal temperature at which to make popcorn.
“And then Christmas rolled around and we started seeing names on the orders we didn’t recognize,” Arnold said. “It was really exciting.”
The following February, Arnold heard from a food writer at the New York Times who was fascinated with the trend of gourmet popcorn. That led to notice from Oprah herself, who named 479 Degrees on her “O List” that spring.
Arnold was still making popcorn out of her basement kitchen with a couple of employees, but within the first year, the company had already reached revenues of $1 million. She had just become a first-time Mom as well.
Even though 479 Degrees has since moved out of the Richmond District basement where it all started, the company’s headquarters, which employs 7 people, are still in the neighborhood on Geary Boulevard.
The company currently sells 11 flavors year-round including a basic Sea Salt, a cheesy Asiago, Parmesan + Cheddar, and a more unusual Toasted Sesame + Seaweed which is a nod to Arnold’s Asian heritage.
They also offer two specialty flavors during the holidays – Dark Chocolate + Bing Cherries and Pumpkin Pecan Praline.
“If I had my way we’d have 30 flavors,” Arnold told us during an interview at the company’s “annex” conference room a.k.a Coffee Break cafe. She says Sea Salt Caramel and the Asiago cheese flavors are the best sellers.
479’s manufacturing moved to Colorado about two years ago but Arnold still uses her own kitchen to experiment with new flavors. And the company has not strayed from its original, small batch process and organic, non-GMO ingredients.
“The seaweed and toasted sesame flavor took 45 iterations before it was ready,” Arnold said. She says that since the beginning, the White Cheddar + Black Truffle has been her favorite.
479’s revenues today are $10 million annually, thanks to shelf space in some of the nation’s leading food retailers including Whole Foods, Kroger and Target. Here in San Francisco, you’ll find 479 Degrees popcorn at Andronico’s, Mollie Stones, Birite, Whole Foods and the new Target Express in the Financial District. You can also buy it on their website.
Arnold is now a mom of two children, ages 4 and 6, who can’t help but notice Mom’s success. While on a Virgin Airlines flight, her son noticed bags of 479 popcorn on the food cart as it wheeled past him in the aisle.
Besides being close to home, Arnold says she likes having her headquarters in the Richmond District because “it’s a foodie area and I love to eat”. Some of her favorite spots include Y&Y Vietnamese, Daigo Sushi, Chapeau!, Heartbaker for brunch, Pizzetta, Kappou Gomi for Japanese, and Aziza for cocktails.
So what’s next for Arnold and her flavored popcorn empire?
“We’ll keep making great popcorn and hopefully become a household name. We’d much rather see people reach for popcorn than chips. It’s an inherently healthier snack.”
The secret to 479’s success? Some offerings outside Arnold’s office.
4:15 am | Posted under Business
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