Before you see Johnson’s Popcorn at the end of the Boardwalk, you can smell it. And when the salty sea breeze shifts just right to blend with it, there’s arguably no better smell on earth.
Johnson’s is a staple that has few one-time-only visitors. Once a newcomer has their first handful of the fresh, caramelized corn found at one of three Ocean City Boardwalk locations, they are guaranteed to return, or at least to repeat their order through the gift shop website and have it shipped home.
Call him the popcorn master, chef or manager, whatever the title, Yuri Gieza, is the man creating the corn.
“It was my first job and I’ve been here three years now,” Yuri said. “It’s very rewarding. The best thing about Ocean City is… everything. These businesses are the same since I was a kid. It’s about tradition.”
Yuri is one of the privileged few who know the top-secret Johnson’s recipe, as only some are privy to the combination of natural, preservative-free ingredients that make the caramel corn the remarkable treat it is. And after all, these classified ingredients are the main reason behind the common customer phrase, “I can’t stop eating it.”
While he wasn’t sharing any secrets, he could, however, let me in on the process, which has not changed since Johnson’s Popcorn first opened on the Ocean City Boardwalk in 1940.
First the corn is air-popped in big stainless steel machines in the back of the store. The machines rolled around slowly as he explained that air popping sets them apart from other popcorn places, and that it gets the flavor off on the right foot. In the air-popping process the kernels do not touch oil. They are cooked more naturally using only heat and the kernel’s own moisture and without the preservatives of oil.
Tins of prepared ingredients were measured and on standby as the poppers churned. It was then that I noticed there was no real machinery in the store apart from the poppers themselves. The machine at work, essentially, was Yuri.
Next, he said, was the sifting. This moderately-delicate process weeds out any hard popcorn pieces or kernels that never quite made it to their full form. When sifting is complete, the hot, popped corn goes into the line of massive copper kettles that stand like the Queen’s Guard along the wall. In each copper kettle, a wooden paddle sits at the ready.
The part that would make me most nervous, if I was asked to put on a Johnson’s apron, was next.
Sans timer or any other scientific tool or method, Yuri coats the corn with the secret ingredients that will turn it into its final candied form. The kettles had been cooking the caramel and on a busy summer day, all eight kettles emanate bursts of heat. Yuri watches carefully and gauges when the time is right to add the corn, which can’t be too early or too late. Experience, he said, is essential in getting this step right.
“It needs to cook for a certain amount of time, but can definitely be overcooked,” Yuri said.
Less than or longer than a certain amount of minutes (We’re not revealing the secret!) in the copper pots could tarnish the batch which, don’t forget, is all done completely by hand and watchful eye.
“Cooking it is the best part, but it is harder than you think. It’s not so easy,” said Yuri. “If we think something doesn’t look right, the batch goes out. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t,” he said.
This explains the uniform perfection that ends up in the 28-ounce tubs despite the fact that it is made by hand. The last steps involve carrying the sizzling copper pots over to the large, metal cooling bins that span the length of the store. One side is for immediate consumption, the other for packaging. Large, metal scoops keep the hot caramel corn from forming one large brick, but like the cooking process, seasoned members of the Johnson’s crew such as Yuri know that a small amount of clusters is just what the customer expects.
And whether it’s the caramely clusters that dot a fresh tub of popcorn or the cheddar or peanut crunch flavors, customers just can’t get enough.
“Visitors drive here just for this,” Yuri said.
And after watching the process, it’s easy to see why. Each bag or tub of popcorn picked up at the counter is usually still warm to the touch and was made in the last 10 minutes. These are the details that have kept Johnson’s lovers returning and reordering over the last 76 years.
Johnson’s vice president Becky Juzwiak, who has been with the company for 20 years, noted that it’s the tradition and dependability of their product that is so loved and unparalleled. And the proof is in the pounds. Anywhere from about 50 to 75,000 pounds of kernels are used per month at Johnson’s.
“This job is my entire life. They key is we do everything as we have since 1940. I absolutely love what I do. It’s got a lot of soul. No machine can put into this what we do,” Becky said.
And it only makes sense that Johnson’s Popcorn has called Ocean City home from the beginning. Johnson’s is a family affair between their employee family and Boardwalk family that extends through relationships with other shops along the beach. That feeling is passed along to the customers and the excitement around Johnson’s Popcorn is contagious.
“It’s that comforting feeling you have when you drive over the bridge into Ocean City… you take a sigh of relief,” Becky said. “Then you get to the Boardwalk and you pick up the popcorn hot, there’s nothing like it.” – interview by Hanna Schweder, photos by Shannon Oteri