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3 questions with Jay Pithwa, owner of Tastebuds Popcorn

Popcorn maker adds (more) richness to his popcorn

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Think back to the first time your parents took you to the movie theater, maybe to see Honey I Shrunk the whatever. Your fists were full of popcorn, and a box of Sno-Caps the size of your face was waiting to be devoured. You were happy.

That feeling is what inspired Jay Pithwa to open Tastebuds Popcorn in Belmont and then a second location in Ballantyne (11042A Cedar Walk Lane). After a couple of years experimenting with formulas, the store now offers more than 200 flavors, including cheddar and bacon, Cheerwine and Almond Joy. We caught up with Pithwa to talk about his inspiration, childhood memories and how to develop flavors.

Creative Loafing: A lot of your flavors are inspired by old-school sweets like Sundrop and Sour Patch Kids, stuff a lot of people used to eat as kids. How did those childhood memories influence you?

Jay Pithwa: What I love to hear is the adult customers who tell us, "Oh my God, this is so cool, because I used to eat something like this when I was a kid," or "This brings me back to my childhood," or "Brings me back to when I was in school and dating somebody." Those are the stories we like to hear. Everybody almost has a different kind of story or something to tell us — it's not just your "Let me get a combo 1, 2, 3 and 4" and then they're gone.

What makes your popcorn unique?

We use real ingredients — that was something that we wanted to do right at the beginning. So our bacon and cheddar popcorn has real bacon in there. For our dill pickle flavor we actually use real dill. All of our soda line ... we use actual soda. Now we're trying to do something which seemed impossible when I began: a fried-pickle flavor. We even made a flavor named after my daughter Divya called Divya's Mix. It's our signature caramel flavor coated in a white cheddar. I'm putting 5 percent of the sales aside for her college fund.

We heard you're developing a flavor that's $1,000 a bag. Can you tell us about it?

The new flavor's going to be called Ambrosia, Greek for "food of the gods," and it'll only be available from Oct. 24 until February 2012 because the ingredients are so rare. We've got a limited edition Grand Marnier that's over 150 years old. And unlike our other alcohol-inspired flavors, this will actually retain some of the alcohol. It'll also have rare Hawaiian honey and a single-origin Peruvian chocolate now available after 100 years, called Fortunata No. 4. It's even going to have real, edible 22-karat gold, along with actual shredded out-of-circulation money from the U.S. Department of the Treasury in the packaging. We've had celebrities and athletes order from us, many of whom are in California, but we do have two Carolina Panthers on the list.

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