How Chicago-Style Popcorn Became a Holiday Classic

The "Garrett Mix" of cheese and caramel popcorn is a Chicago staple

December 8, 2020 6:00 am
chicago popcorn
Garrett Popcorn's "Garrett Mix"
Garrett Popcorn

When it comes to classic Christmas food and drink, there are the old stand-bys that we go out of our way to prepare or acquire — a ham, mulled wine, eggnog, maybe a fruitcake — and then there are the treats that seem to just appear out of nowhere and sit out all December waiting for you to pick at them at your leisure: The fancy chocolates your coworker gave you. The homemade sugar cookies your neighbor dropped off. The candy canes of unknown origin that you’re pretty sure are leftover from last year. And if you grew up in the Chicago area, the family-sized tin of cheddar and caramel popcorn.

The salty and sweet mixture is a staple in the city, particularly around the holidays, thanks to Garrett Popcorn (known colloquially as “Garrett’s”), which has been serving up gourmet popcorn in downtown Chicago for over 70 years. The popcorn chain is now a Windy City institution, but its origins actually can be traced back to Milwaukee, where the Garrett family held a competition to see who could make the most delicious caramel corn. That birthed the recipe now known in the stores as CaramelCrisp, which officially made its debut when the family moved to Chicago and opened their first store in the Loop on Madison and State in 1949.

And while the Garrett Mix (also known to locals as the “Chicago Mix”), which is mixed by hand and blends the CaramelCrisp and CheeseCorn flavors together, is the company’s most popular flavor, it wasn’t originally on the menu.

“The Garrett Mix was invented by our fans,” Adrienne Kardosh, Garrett Popcorn’s senior vice president of marketing, tells InsideHook. “Customers would buy a bag of CaramelCrisp and a bag of Cheesecorn, then ask for a third, empty bag. They would shake the two recipes together. We had the good sense to put it on the menu in 1977, and the rest is history.”

Since then, the Garrett Mix has inspired plenty of copycats around the city, and its popularity has grown worldwide as Garrett Popcorn opened up locations in Atlanta, Las Vegas, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Malaysia. But it remains a favorite in Chicago, and like the Italian beef sandwich, malort or the Chicago-style hot dog, it’s a local delicacy that residents take pride in showing off to out-of-towners.

“There is nothing like the sweet-salty combination,” Kardosh says. “And it’s a great surprise once you taste it: who knew that real Wisconsin cheddar cheese and homemade caramel would be so delicious together? There’s a bit of a badge of honor that comes from being the one who introduces Garrett Mix to another. They’ll remember the gift forever.”

But what exactly is it about Garrett Popcorn that makes it a Christmas classic? People eat popcorn year-round, yet the crunchy treat has become associated with the holidays in Chicago. Kardosh says fans tell her it’s about the romance and ritual of a hot snack in cold weather. (“They recall the cold, wintry days of the Windy City and the relative warmth of standing in a line with friends — known and new — as they wait for the hot CaramelCrisp to come from the kitchens,” she says.)

But beyond that, it’s an easy gift. Everyone loves popcorn, right? You can buy it in a festive, decorative tin, so there’s no wrapping required, and the three Garrett Popcorn’s locations in O’Hare Airport get plenty of traffic this time of year from travelers — former Chicagoans, current Chicagoans and folks from all over who are simply passing through the city on their way to their final destination — headed home for the holidays.

Kardosh notes that in recent years, the Garrett Mix has been given a run for its money by a newer invention, the seasonal Hot Cocoa CaramelCrisp mix, which features the CaramelCrisp corn mixed with Belgian milk chocolate and dark chocolate popcorn.

“We see a spike around the holidays, especially in recent years as customers discover how incredible the chocolate recipes are,” she says. “This is the third year we’ve offered Hot Cocoa CaramelCrisp mix. It sold out in the first two years and is becoming a holiday tradition all its own.”

Of course, every holiday tradition looks drastically different this year thanks to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and while most people are unable to travel home for the holidays, many are yearning for the little reminders of home. Business at Garrett Popcorn has been booming as a result, with more and more people ordering from their online store and shipping the Chicago staple to loved ones in other cities who won’t be home for Christmas this year. The company is also selling little snack packs of Garrett Mix — typically reserved for the various parades in the city the company participates in, many of which were canceled due to the pandemic — for the first time.

“We have seen a spike throughout the past year and, for that, we are incredibly grateful to our customers,”  Kardosh says. “Our Chicago kitchen, out of which we ship our treats across the country, is now staffed with cooks 24/7 so we can ensure there’s plenty of Garrett Popcorn to go around during the holiday. The pandemic is certainly making us all thankful for little moments of joy and, yes, those can often be found in really yummy and special snacks in the pantry.”


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.