Two guys walk into a bar. Sounds like the start of a cheesy joke, right?
Not when the two guys are Dan Bazis and Kevin Pyles, who bellied up to the bar at Union Jacks in Columbia last winter to discuss one of those existential questions men on bar stools have been pondering for ages:
How to create the perfect peanut butter-and-jelly-flavored popcorn?
For Bazis and Pyles, two Columbia residents better known in cyberspace as CrunchDaddy and Popcorn Face, it was a true dilemma. Bazis -- an entrepreneur whose online CrunchDaddy gourmet popcorn business had grown exponentially since its launch at the beginning of the year -- was ready to offer some new flavors and PB&J seemed like a natural. He created peanut butter crunch popcorn that featured kernels drenched in peanut butter caramel, and originally intended to mix it with a grape jelly-flavored popcorn. Only problem was he couldn't seem to perfect a recipe that tasted enough like grape jelly.
"We thought about it for a while, and finally I said, 'Why don't you try mixing it with a grape candy like jelly beans,' " recalls Pyles, whose Popcorn Face website not only highlights photos of unusual kernels of popped corn -- that look like faces, naturally -- but also reviews popcorn brands from national favorites to boutique finds like CrunchDaddy.
"I bought a bag of jelly beans on the way home that night at Walgreens and started experimenting right away," Bazis says. The result is Peanut Butter and Jelly Crunch Popcorn, which features minced grape jelly beans. It's become one of his best-sellers.
"It turned out to be a perfect fit because I like doing unusual flavors," Bazis says. "I want my flavors to be real conversation starters."
Sound delicious? How about Sesame Ginger, which features real candied ginger and toasted sesame seeds? Or the site's top-selling Maple and Bacon, which features Vermont maple syrup and requires a half-pound of precooked bacon for every gallon of popcorn?
That's right. Maple and bacon popcorn.
If you're expecting tired generic flavors like cheese or caramel, you're in for a surprise when you visit CrunchDaddy.com. The site sells popcorn in 14 flavors, all of which were carefully perfected by Bazis himself.
"I come from a family of foodies," says Bazis, who, by day, works as a cartographer specializing in creating nautical charts. "Everyone loves coming to our parties because they know the food is going to be great."
One thing Bazis and his siblings always enjoyed was popcorn, and one year his brother sent him a caramel corn recipe on a lark.
"I couldn't believe how easy it was to make, but I'm like Emeril — I like kicking things up a notch, so I created a rum vanilla caramel corn drizzled in dark chocolate."
He gave bags of it away that year as Christmas gifts to friends and co-workers and was shocked at the reaction.
"People just loved it, and they started saying, 'You really need to sell this,' " says Bazis, 44, of Running Brook.
A few months later he sampled kettle corn for the first time, and although he loved the combination of salty and sweet, he found the oily aftertaste off-putting.
"Kettle corn is made from sugar, salt and vegetable oil, so I started experimenting with sea salt and butter instead of oil," he says. He started making it for friends and once again was told he was onto something big.
"I've always wanted to be in some kind of business for myself, and over the years I've explored eight or 10 ideas but never got past the research phase," he says.
It took a push from his sister, Hickory Ridge resident Sandy Dykes, to finally commit to a business plan.
"People were really crazy about the popcorn, but I guess I just convinced myself they were just being nice," he says. "It was my sister who finally convinced me that I really had something here."
Bazis spent 2011 planning a launch, sourcing ingredients and perfecting his recipes. His kettle corn was renamed Sweet Butter Crunch, and savory flavors were added as well, including White Cheddar and Horseradish and Maryland Crab Feast. Most importantly, he christened the business -- and himself -- CrunchDaddy.
At the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1 of this year, he threw the switch on his website and received his first order just a few hours later.
Business was slow but steady for the first few months, with five to 10 orders coming in each week. Then in April he garnered his first mention on the local HowChow food blog and orders shot up to 50 per week.
By then he was operating out of rented commercial space in Columbia, mixing 4-gallon batches at a time (by hand!) in his 30-quart mixing bowls -- the largest he could find at Restaurant Depot. Friends and family pitched in at night and on weekends to create and bag the orders. For orders placed within Howard County, Bazis delivered them free.
"Let me tell you, with my GPS I've gotten to know every inch of Howard County very, very well," he laughs.
Bazis began getting repeat business and in June, looking for more exposure, signed up as a vendor at Ride Across Maryland, an annual motorcycle ride that raised more than $2 million during its first 10 years for breast cancer research and Komen for a Cure in Maryland.
During the event he met WJZ television personality Dick Gelfman, a longtime Howard County resident, who has become one of Bazis' biggest fans.
"He's an entrepreneur who is going about it the right way, and he has a great product with really unique flavors," says Gelfman, who claims Horseradish Cheddar as his favorite flavor. "We're not talking Cracker Jacks here. His popcorn is so delicious, you can't just eat one or two pieces."
Bazis says he has been overwhelmed by the positive comments he's received on Facebook and Twitter.
"People have been so supportive and enthusiastic. Even though it's a lot of hard work, reading their comments makes it a lot easier," says Bazis, who will begin stocking select varieties at David's Natural Market in Columbia, Gambrills and Bel Air this fall.
So what's next for CrunchDaddy? Bazis continues to experiment with wasabi, but hasn't been able to find a way around the bitterness that can come through. Maybe a buffalo cheese is in the cards as well. And he's been so successful so far, a larger commercial workspace is his next endeavor.
"With CrunchDaddy, I really want to make food that's worth talking about, something that you not only want to give as a gift, but that you want to buy as a treat for yourself," he says.
Pyles, of PopcornFace.com, who says his favorite flavor is Honey & Cinnamon Crunch, says Bazis has already accomplished that and much more.
"I eat so much popcorn to sample and review that sometimes I end up eating it for breakfast," he says. "I can tell you, he makes a great popcorn."
Hungry for popcorn with a twist?
CrunchDaddy flavors include:
Maple & Bacon Crunch
Sesame & Ginger Crunch
Honey & Cinnamon Crunch
Caramel & Peanut Crunch
White Cheddar & Horseradish Crunch
Peanut Butter Crunch
Chocolate & Peanut Butter Crunch
Sweet Butter Crunch
Movie Night Crunch
Simply Cinnamon Crunch
Peanut Butter & Jelly Crunch
Maryland Crab Feast Crunch
Bombay Market Crunch
Popcorn prices range from $4.95 for a half-gallon of Movie Night Crunch to $26.95 for a gallon of Maple & Bacon Crunch. Regular shipping starts at $5 and orders in Howard County are delivered for free -- usually by CrunchDaddy himself.