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Built from a joke, What's Pop-in' Gourmet Popcorn ready for Buffalo's West Side

Stefan Coker and Dave Whelan were tired of serving side salads. The kitchen duo, then at Larkin Square's Filling Station, began a trial run of black truffle popcorn to accompany meals, simply as a change of pace.

"Why don't we set up this corny popcorn business?" Coker remembers asking himself at the time. "These two big guys cruising around, slinging popcorn ... "

What began as an amusing attempt to deviate from the norm has evolved into a full-blown, brick-and-mortar business – What's Pop-in' Gourmet Popcorn– with the same against-the-grain objectives. The grand-opening is slated for 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 2 at 418 W. Ferry St., one of the tenants in a rehabbed Buffalove Development building.

What's Pop-in' differentiates itself by taking a chef-centered approach to popcorn; flavors are not predicated on sugary coatings, but rather blends of seasoning to mimic more complex flavors. Coker prefers the trail mix-style, where "all the popcorn looks the same" but tastes radically different, and is supported by add-ins such as dried apples and chewy caramel rolls for the caramel apple flavor.

What's Pop-In will sell popcorn in bags, at top, as well as in buckets of varying sizes. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

"It was just a joke, built around my kids," said Coker, who's worked at Gertie's in Clarence, Frog Hair and several other eateries over the last 20 years. "We didn't expect What's Pop-in' to be what it is right now."

Coker and Whelan, friends for the last six years, have worked together on another venture, Three Brothers Catering, which proved a perfect testing ground to determine if gourmet popcorn could catch on. "Then people got it and they started bugging," Coker said.

The owners plan to carry around 20 different flavors in store, offering staples such as white cheddar, salt-and-vinegar (labeled SNV), Buffalo wing and salted caramel before veering into more unusual flavors such as pizza, lemonade, dill pickle, garlic parmesan and cotton candy. Even wilder varieties will be posted on a specialty board in the shop.

"I'm all about doing things the opposite of everyone else," Coker explained. "We've scouted and seen what everyone is doing, and then we go in the other direction. I want to stand out and be different."

Bernice Radle, who founded Buffalove Development and is referred to as What's Pop-in's No. 1 fan, is excited for her tenant.

"We are so lucky that Buffalo is a place where people who have hustle and dedication can afford to take a leap of faith on unique business ideas," she said in a message. "Believing in What's Pop-in' is easy - the hustle is real, the product is delicious and they're dedicated to making it work."

The exterior of What's Pop-In Popcorn, at 418 W. Ferry St. on the West Side. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

What's Pop-in' has already worked with tourism bureau Visit Buffalo Niagara on a beef-on-weck popcorn, one of their specialty seasonings comprising ketchup powder, horseradish powder and caraway seeds, Coker said.

"Some people can't seem to wrap their head around that concept yet, which I love," he added.

A 14.5-ounce standard bag of popcorn will run for $5 in most cases - specialty flavors for $6 - with larger ceramic bowls available for purchase, too. An array of gift baskets will be sold, too, especially around the holidays. Coker plans to have sample-sized dollar bags that are roughly 3 ounces, too. The online store should be fully operational soon.

Caramel apple popcorn is a specialty flavor at What's Pop-in' Gourmet Popcorn. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

While What's Pop-in' is primarily a retail store, the especially gregarious Coker and Whelan encourage customers to hang out and talk; movies will play on a soon-to-come TV, and a prize wheel may be spun for various giveaways.

A logical complement to What's Pop-in' is monthly multi-course wine dinners, limited to 15 people given the cozy confines on West Ferry Street.

Each course weaves flavored popcorn into an appetizer, entree and dessert; an example is butternut squash soup with smoked popcorn served as an app for the Ghouls & Goblins Halloween dinner. Wine is paired for each course, with lemonade popcorn as a palate cleanser between courses.

Coker and Whelan's next event – for which there's no official date yet – will have a bodega theme, with popcorn-tinged takes on Lipton Cup a-Soup, zebra cakes and honey buns.

Through these dinners, Coker is able to rekindle his chef background, to which he credits local chefs Paula Danilowicz and Scott Donhauser as major influences, but also has a platform to tell his own story – one of a troubled West Side upbringing under an abusive father.

"I get to share my story, my come-up in this neighborhood," added Coker, who grew up on 16th and 19th streets before his mother moved him to Williamsville for high school at North.

My lil man Mason pounding pavement handing out flyers with me. Grand Opening Saturday!! #comecheckusout #popcornbar #3points #smallbusiness #nodaysoff

Posted by Whats Pop-In Gourmet Popcorn on Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Coker now has three kids of his own - the oldest, Jayce, 9; a younger son, Mason, 7; and a daughter, Avery, 5, whom he wants to expose to the West Side – particularly through the West Ferry shop. Jayce will have his own influence in a line of cotton candy, likely released through What's Pop-in' next year.

For something that began as a joke, What's Pop-in' has a chance to carve out a lasting identity on West Ferry, a stone's throw from La Nova.

"Even if it doesn't work out, we'll know that we did it our own way," Coker said.

INFO: What's Pop-in' Gourmet Popcorn, 418 W. Ferry St. Grand opening: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 2. 597-8129.


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