Demand for gourmet chocolate truffles dipped during the economic downturn a decade ago, sending Cindy and Dave Blomquist looking for other treats to revive their candy shop in downtown Hastings.

Cindy experimented with an old family recipe, her mother Edna’s caramel corn, and the result was good — no, it was great.

The Blomquists hit the right note at the right time and, today, their Grandma Edna’s ready-to-eat popcorn is sold in dozens of stores around the Twin Cities. “It took off like a shot,” Dave Blomquist said. “We were printing labels with Microsoft Publisher to get [them] on bags as quickly as possible.”

Across the country, countless entrepreneurs emerged in recent years to join bigger producers and fill grocery shelves with both standard and eccentric flavors of popcorn, like chili jalapeño, ghee and Himalayan pink salt. Ready-to-eat popcorn serves a growing appetite for nutritious snacks.

One of the biggest successes in the new wave of popcorn is another Minnesota company: Angie’s Boomchickapop, which started in a North Mankato garage in 2001 and was purchased last year by Chicago-based ConAgra for $250 million.

Angie’s Boomchickapop is the third-most popular popcorn brand in U.S. by sales, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. The company sold more than $104.5 million worth of popcorn in the year that ended in February, trailing only Smartfood and Skinny Pop.

When it announced the acquisition, ConAgra said Boomchickapop would help modernize its more traditional food portfolio, calling the company a leader in “better-for-you snacking.” The company declined interview requests.

Fast and wholesome

Consumers are increasingly replacing meals with snacks as convenience continues to be an attribute shoppers value in their everyday lives. But consumers are also striving to eat more healthful foods. This has created a huge opportunity for food marketers to develop products that are both fast and wholesome.

Popcorn is a whole grain and even contains “a little bit of fiber,” said Renee Korczak, a Minneapolis-based dietitian. So if people are going to choose a snack food, popcorn is a decent option so long as it is made with a healthy oil and not trans fat, which is called “partially hydrogenated oil” on the ingredient list.

“What matters is how it is processed and what is added on top of that popcorn,” Korczak said.

Popcorn is its own type of corn and one of the few corn varieties that actually becomes human food. It’s a specialty crop, dwarfed in comparison to field corn, which is used to make animal feed, biofuels, and other inedible products. In the Agriculture Department’s 2012 census, a little more than 218,000 acres of popcorn were harvested compared to more than 87 million acres of field corn.

Bill and Ginger Grubb, popcorn farmers in central Iowa, have been growing the crop, along with field and sweet corn, for nearly three decades and have seen the changes in the industry firsthand. What started as a hobby turned into a commercial business in 2010. They grow two types of popcorn kernels: mushroom and butterfly.

The Grubbs sell their own brand of raw kernels and bags of microwave popcorn, but have also supplied some of the new, entrepreneurial brands, including St. Paul-based Maddy and Maize, with kernels for their gourmet flavored popcorn.

Ginger Grubb said growing popcorn is similar to growing field corn, but said all popcorn is non-GMO. The crop is still grown on such a small scale that seed companies don’t see a profit to gain from creating a genetically modified version.

Fresh out-of-the-bag

Roseville-based Old Dutch Foods, a local potato chip and snack giant, is also benefiting from the growing popularity of ready-to-eat popcorn though it’s not yet selling quirky varieties like bourbon barbecue, chili lime or chocolate-drizzled popcorn.

“While people are wanting fresh foods, the trend still is toward fresh out-of-the-bag,” said Matt Colford, director of marketing for Old Dutch.

Old Dutch has a faithful following of fans with its four types of popcorn: gourmet white, Cheddar cheese, white Cheddar and kettle corn. The company takes a long-term view on new products, trying to avoid temporary food fads in favor of maintaining its loyal base. But the company recognizes this consumer craze for creative, fun popcorn flavors and plans to roll out a few new varieties soon.

“We think our opportunity is in development of craft brands, in development of calorie-counted brands, or sweet, more indulgent flavors,” Colford said. “The splintering of the category has opened up new paths to market that we are looking to attack, while maintaining our position in the mainstream, core business.”

Not long after the Blomquists started making and selling caramel corn in their shop, Dave took a case of it to the grocery manager of a Byerly’s grocery store in Edina and asked him to give it a chance. The store sold out of the product in less than two days and the manager immediately asked for more.

The Blomquists eventually gave up their store to focus on popcorn. Over time, they added cheese covered, a cheese and caramel mix and dark chocolate-drizzled caramel. They have a part-time driver, but they still make some deliveries to stores themselves or with the help of their adult children. And sometimes, their grandkids come to their commercial kitchen to help label packages.

“My grandson told my wife, ‘Well, Grandma, this is my second job. My first job is kindergarten,’ ” Dave said.

For small popcorn companies like Grandma Edna’s, the challenge will be standing out amid the grocery store’s increasingly crowded popcorn shelf.

“Three years ago, there was one brand of caramel corn besides ours at the stores we were in,” Dave said. “Now, customers are looking for different flavors, different products at different price points, so it is becoming much more crowded. Being a small manufacturer, we have to be great or we don’t get a second look.”