Around San Diego County, a hot, salty, buttered controversy has popped up.
Should hardware stores offer free bags of freshly popped popcorn?
While that may look like a warm, welcoming treat, free popcorn is a threat to public health — or so argue county officials. Last month, health inspectors raided La Jolla’s Meanley & Son Hardware, warning that its old-fashioned red popcorn machine is a germy outlaw.
“They explained we didn’t have the proper permits,” said Bob Meanley, whose shop had handed out 30 to 40 bags every day for about 25 years.
To comply with the 1984 California Uniform Retail Food Facility Law, Meanley & Son would need to install a three-basin sink to clean and sterilize the popcorn popper. Also required: regular inspections, just like a restaurant.
Meanley declined and instead rolled the offending machine into storage. Thus ended a tradition he had started 25 years ago.
“I hate to take away something that our customers really like,” said Meanley, whose grandparents founded the hardware store in 1948. “On the other hand, this whole thing has made me more aware of our liability.”
While closely associated with movie theaters, popcorn is also tightly linked to neighborhood purveyors of hammers and screwdrivers. The connection is seen in shops from Cambridge, Mass. (Tags Ace Hardware) to Lakeside (Payton’s True Value Hardware).
“The little kids get a kick out of it,” said Dianne El-Hajj, co-owner of Payton’s, where the free treat has been a staple since 1997. “They come in for the popcorn and dad comes in for the tools.”
The county Department of Environmental Health, for its part, has a long tradition of cracking down on these scofflaws. Three years ago, inspectors cited Encinitas’ Crown Ace Hardware and San Carlos True Value Hardware.
“The Health Department came in,” said San Carlos True Value manager Danielle Matheny, “and told us if we wanted to continue giving away free popcorn and coffee we’d have to install a bigger vent system, a bigger and better sink in the break room — a lot of rules and restrictions they put on us.”
In both Encinitas and San Carlos, the stores dropped the practice. Inspectors so far have ignored Payton’s, but El-Hajj figures it’s just a matter of time.
“I feel sad,” she said, “that some of the old traditions we have become so regulated.”
At the oily heart of this tale, there’s a hard kernel of concern. Food-borne illnesses annually sicken an estimated 48 million Americans, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
Food poisoning, the Department of Environmental Health warned, is just one potential problem with free popcorn.
“Potential health hazards include but are not limited to risk of foodborne illness, cross contamination, improper storage of equipment and foods, unsanitary equipment, and vermin,” a department statement maintained. “According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, cross contamination of food through unclean equipment and improper food handling or hand washing are major contributors to foodborne illness.”
Yet, none of the hardware store proprietors contacted for this story had heard of customers falling ill after partaking of popcorn.
Still, some worry that this is unsanitary.
“We had a customer complain,” said Martin Lopez, a salesman at Hillcrest Ace Hardware, which abandoned free popcorn a few years ago. “I guess it was because people were not wearing gloves. Anybody could stick their hands in there and take the popcorn.”
Meanley & Son’s fate was sealed with an anonymous tip phoned into the authorities. Employees popped the corn, but the rest of the operation was self-serve, with a scoop and bags set out for patrons. The tipster claimed some folks stuck their bare, potentially grimy, fingers into the machine, plucking out crunchy handfuls.
On a recent afternoon, though, the focus was less on public health than on the public’s loss.
“Because one guy complained,” said Joe Guiney, a regular customer at Meanley & Son, “it was ruined for everyone else.”
“People are very upset,” said Cathy Jones, head cashier at Meanley & Son. “Even if they didn’t eat the popcorn, they appreciated the aroma.”
End of an era
Hardware stores aren’t alone in seeing the customer-pleasing potential of free popcorn. When Rough Draft opened in Miramar in 2012, the brewery’s owner sought — and obtained — official clearance.
“I called the health department and said, ‘Hey, we’d like to serve popcorn but we don’t have a kitchen,’” said Jeff Silver, Rough Draft’s owner and brewer.
“They said, ‘We don’t really consider popcorn food, so you’re fine.’”
Rough Draft now has a kitchen, and the popcorn machine has been transferred to the brewery’s pub on the UC San Diego campus. The machine is still popping, but for a price.
“Our days of free popcorn,” Silver said, “are over.”
Mor Furniture for Less’ four outlets across the county all offer free popcorn. But this chain obtained the proper health certificates and posts its “A” rating, like a restaurant.
San Diego libraries, too, sometimes offer free popcorn at in-house movie screenings, a practice that has gone unquestioned.
“We have not been contacted by anybody either way,” said Shaun Briley, manager of the La Jolla/Riford library branch. “How about we have everybody sign a waiver?”
Briley paused. Then he said, “That was a joke.”
How about the end of the free popcorn era? Is that a joke, too?
“People say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” said Meanley & Son cashier Jones.