A quirky and utterly addictive popcorn craze it afoot both locally and nationwide. Hatched right here in the Rondout Valley, BjornQorn has become a sensation, picking up accolades from avid popcorn enthusiasts and the likes of Epicurious, Bon Appetit and Zagat. With the recent purchase of Skate Time 209, thing are about to get zany with a popcorn factory and roller skating rink wonderland in the not too distant future.
The popcorn empire BjornQorn was officially born in 2013, however, the origin story for the product stretches back to the early 2000s. BjornQorn owners Stephanie Bauman, Jamie O’Shea and Bjorn Quenemoen were undergraduates at Bard College who hailed from various areas of the country. Bauman, who is responsible for sales and the public-facing side of BjornQorn, was born in New Paltz, daughter to a Methodist minister. Her family relocated when her father was reappointed to a church in Manhattan, returning to the area every August when her father was the minister on duty at Mohonk Mountain House.
“Every August, I had a very Eloise experience,” says Bauman. O’Shea, the inventor and internally referenced “mad scientist” behind the popping technology, hails from Norwich, where his father was a dairy veterinarian. Quenemoen, the mastermind of the flavors of BjornQorn we’ve come to know and love, grew up in Clark, Minnesota, close to the border of South Dakota, where his father was a grain farmer. While at Bard, it was popcorn that brought the three together. Quenemoen, who was a music major, lived on a house on campus simply called “the house,” and every Thursday he would open his doors for now fabled popcorn parties. It was there that the concept of BjornQorn (and a relationship between Bauman and Quenemoen, which resulted in marriage and two kids) was born.
After graduation the trio headed in different career directions – Bauman into the music publishing industry, O’Shea in the arts field (and tinkering, always tinkering), and Quenemoen working in sound (first at Pratt and then at the MoMA for nearly seven years). Bauman is quick to point out that O’Shea has always been an inventor. “Jamie has always just known how to do things and when he doesn’t know how to do something he just figures it out.” O’Shea was deepening into the intersection of art and science and so, when a call came in 2012 about a new invention that O’Shea was working on, Quenemoen was not surprised.
“He was working on these solar dishes,” explains Quenemoen. “He had purchased one and was using it to collect the data. He had this idea to make a huge version of it with little money.” O’Shea developed a technique to create a giant hemisphere in the ground – creating perfect geometry without needed large machinery. The result was a hemisphere with an enormous amount of solar power, but now O’Shea needed a product to test in it. The pair met up for a game of catch in Central Park and over the course of that casual get-together and many more conversations, BjornQorn began to take shape.
Quenemoen had been slowly considering turning popcorn into a business, going so far as to hire a graphic designer to design the logo. The next step was building the hemisphere. In terms of location, while all three owners were living in Brooklyn at the time, they had maintained strong roots in this area. Possibly most importantly, Bauman’s parents had settled here, providing a launching pad for the fledgling business. “My parents live in High Falls,” explains Bauman, “and I think Bjorn and Jamie thought if we could find a place near my family, we could use their house to live in while were doing it.” Their quest for a location led them to Kelder’s Farm.
“Chris Kelder of Kelder’s Farm is amazing and very open to whacky, whimsical stuff,” says Bauman. “Bjorn and Jamie asked him if they could dig a giant hole on his property and start a popcorn company, and it was cool, he was really down for the ride. It all started on Kelder’s Farm, and it was just this giant dug hole, that we dug together, powered by solar energy, and a small concession stand on site.”
While O’Shea was the primary driving force behind the technology, Quenemoen was decidedly in charge of flavor. Initially, Quenemoen says that popcorn he experienced in his childhood was the driving inspiration. Growing up, Quenemoen says that his family was committed popcorn, prepared in a Dutch oven and seasoned generously with salt and butter. It was through a friend’s family, however, that Quenemoen got a peek into the dark side of the popcorn moon.
“My best friend growing up, and still my best friend, came from a family of very accomplished stoneware potters, and they had a higher expectation about how things were going to be,” Quenemoen says. “They didn’t have a lot of money but they were sincere craft people. My parents were very frugal with food, they made a lot of food that would last for days. But over at my best friend’s house, they made very different food, like nice light salads or natural peanut butter, in just the right amount. They would make popcorn for movie nights, seasoned with butter and nutritional yeast, and serve it in these enormous bowls that they made.” In retrospect, Quenemoen says that the balance was off – too little oil and too much nutritional yeast – however after an initial aversion to nutritional yeast, he found that the mixture of popcorn was completely addictive. In fact, it was so addictive that for the entirety of Quenemoen’s time at Bard College he’d load up on nutritional yeast every time he was home to shuttle back to campus. Over the years, Quenemoen has perfected the recipe. “By the time we started our business I had this very much ‘home recipe’ thing down, but I remember we were out in our concession trailer at Kelder’s and thinking I knew I had to figure it out precisely. Ultimately it became what it is today in a way that it wasn’t before, it was even better. By the time we created the recipe, it was something else that I wasn’t planning on. It took making food on a larger scale to get the accuracy, to dial in the way that we did. Pulling out grams of salt, adding grams of salt, recipes refine themselves naturally as you react to them over the years.”
Bauman says that the success of the product was almost instantaneous. “Everywhere we went, people were asking where they could buy it,” she says. “When we started we were in 20 stores scattered around Brooklyn, mom-and-pop stores, and now it’s over 500 nationwide.” The operation quickly outgrew Kelder’s, and in 2017, spurred by a small fire (quickly extinguished) on the popping hemisphere, the company moved across the street from the farm into a barn and pivoted away from the hemisphere cooking model into a completely solar-run kitchen. (Don’t worry – O’Shea is still investing and the company is currently testing a solar-run oven.)
The popcorn, which is popped to the tune of 500 pounds a day, is GMO free, and a large percentage of the corn is grown by Quenemoen’s father, supplemented by Kelder’s Farm and the Hudson Valley Farm Hub. New flavors have been developed including the cult favorite Cloudy, which mimics the smaller, whiter popcorn that would result from when a cloud passed over the sun changing the length of time it takes a kernel to pop, and Spicy, which is seasoned similarly to the original flavor but with the addition of a special blend of jalapeño peppers. There are two new kids on the block, inspired and driven by the community: Maple, which showcases maple sugar made by neighboring business Tree Juice Maple Syrup, and Earth, a truffle-flavored collaboration with Urbani Tartufi.
As the business has grown, so have the space requirements. “Our facility on Queens Highway was been a great space for us, but we were at the point that every time we turn around, we’re hitting a wall of popcorn.”
In early November, BjornQorn closed on purchasing Skate Time 209 – a building that holds many fond memories for community members and has seemingly mostly stood still for the last few years. “We had been to birthday parties and gone to hang out, and it’s a really special place,” says Bauman, “and we never would have necessarily envisioned owning it. It used to have an indoor skate park and the previous owner ripped it out because of insurance reasons, and what that did – and I know it upset a lot of skateboarders – it allowed us to re-envision the space.” The company had previously been looking for land to build on, but in this new light, suddenly Skate Time 209 perfectly fit the bill. “We’re at a point in our business that we really need to expand and we need a larger production facility, but we also don’t want to be in a boring factory building, that doesn’t feel right. So somehow the idea of moving into that 8,000 [square foot] warehouse space and operating the rink at the same time made all the sense in the world,” says Bauman. Quenemoen adds, “It was one of those things where you ask your future self, should I do this thing? And that’s how it felt. Do we want to run a roller skating rink and popcorn factory? Yes. I feel like future self would want that.”
The space, which is currently being used for warehouse and shipping, is going to take some time to transition to popcorn factory, with the team estimating roughly 12-18 months. The rink is also still in development. “We would love to open the skate rink this winter, but there a lot of things we need accomplish in terms of staffing and insurance, and we don’t want to say anything out of turn,” says Bauman. “I am all about community and building and fostering community, and we are committed to digging our heels deeper into the community we are in. We want to bring the rink back, but it’s going to take a minute to get it all up and running. Bjorn and I have always felt like this is home. As we’ve met the other families that are here, and the teachers at Marbletown – who are consistently blowing my mind at how incredible they are and the experienced the incredible support everyone has thrown our way, that feeling has only deepened. And we think that a roller-skating rink and a popcorn factory individually bring joy into the world, and together it’s an unstoppable force.”
For more information about BjornQorn visit: https://bjornqorn.com.
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