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Seven years ago, Newton Carroll had never tasted kettle corn. “Never had kettle corn before, never seen it in my life,” he says. Now, people around New Haven crave bags of his famous snack — $5 for a large, $3 for a small — and stoop by the free sample dispenser in hordes for a taste of the stuff.
Newton founded his company, Elm City Kettle Corn, on a whim. After having retired from a twenty-year career at the Yale Health Center, in the spring of 2003, he stumbled upon an ad for kettle-corn-making equipment. He was so intrigued that he decided to get back to work and drove with his wife all the way to Alabama. There, he bought the equipment that would define the next seven years of his life: a new popper for $4,000 and a copper bin for $900. The only thing he lacked when he returned to New Haven was something to hold them. His wife solved that dilemma and built him a cart to house his gear. She’s now made him two, and a third is in the works.
The cart Yale students are most familiar with is the one on Elm Street. It’s a new location — two months and running — but the cart already seems like a familiar campus landmark, and regulars know and greet Newton by name. One of Newton’s favorite parts of the job is meeting people, from students to patients at Yale-New Haven Hospital, where his original cart is parked. “Sometimes I go inside [the hospital] and visit them,” he says. A pair of brown-rimmed glasses covers his eyes, which crinkle as he slowly speaks.
To maintain both carts, Newton switches shifts with his manager, Billy Williams, who joined the business three years ago. Together, they keep the Elm Street cart running from 12 to 10 p.m. and the hospital cart open from 12 to 5 p.m. (4 p.m. in the winter). Newton and Billy were classmates at West Haven High School, where Newton graduated in 1970. “He’s very valuable, very valuable,” Newton says of Billy while nodding his head. Billy is a bit taller than Newton and just as friendly. The two wear matching black beanies with “Elm City Kettle Corn” embroidered across the front.
One Wednesday afternoon in November, Billy is getting ready to make a new batch of kettle corn, while Newton looks on. Vegetable oil, popcorn kernels, sugar — all of these measured ingredients go into the big vat of a popper.
Nothing happens for the first minute. There are some small pops as random kernels explode within the mass of sugar Billy mixes with a wooden stirrer. Then, as he flips down the sunglasses that are sitting atop his head, the pot erupts. The pops come in quick succession, and stray kernels fly from the popper. A great plume of steam rushes out, carrying with it the aroma now associated with kettle corn: a sugary, buttery mix that people can smell even while walking through Old Campus. Not Newton — he’s grown so used the scent that he can no longer smell it. “Watch him as he dumps it,” Newton says, pointing to the empty copper bin that has caramel-colored rings running down its edges. The popping lulls, and Billy quickly turns the popper on its side so that a torrent of hot kernels tumbles out. Then, using the massive wooden spoon, he scrapes the rest of the sticky kernels into the bin and pours a shower of sea salt over the heap.
The process takes a mere five minutes, but in that time, students are already trickling over to get a taste of the freshly-popped snack. Newton begins scooping the goods into baggies, closing off each bag with a quick twirl of a twist tie.
As Newton works, he talks about his familiarity with New Haven. He’s known the city his whole life but his relationship to its citizens has grown with his company. Elm City Kettle Corn supplies kettle corn at many events: concerts in Hamden, tree lightings. “I’d have to say my favorite event is the Apple Harvest Festival,” Newton says. He quickly changes his mind, though, and declares that he likes all of them.
His connection to Yale has grown, too. Newton supplies his illustrious snack at many campus events including tailgate parties. The kettle corn at the recent YCC-sponsored Harry Potter screenings? Right from Newton’s cart. Newton even supplies bags of kettle corn to Yale eateries like the Divinity School Refectory, Uncommons, and the Thain Family Café. Newton started selling packages of his product to other venues about three years ago. “I did an event on the Green,” he says, “and a lady from the library café approached and asked if we would supply popcorn for them.”
Even people who say they don’t like kettle corn can never say no to his. He recalls one time at a tailgate when a guy approached him and told him he didn’t like kettle corn at all. For Newton, though, this was a problem easily fixed. “I told him to try some of mine,” he says. “And once he did, he just loved it.”
Sometimes, people refuse the kettle corn for other reasons. Often, it’s because they don’t think kettle corn qualifies as healthy — especially when it is so hard to stop popping into their mouths. “I just tell them all the calories are popped out,” Newton says as he fiddles with his apron and laughs. As for the kettle corn man himself? He eats a bag a day.