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Business as Usual?

A 32--Flavor Popcorn Potpourri

If there's one thing to which the growing ice cream market owes it success, it's variety. Baskin Robbins, for example, has maintained a loyal following by offering some 31 different flavors every month. And Steve's has set the pace for an entire new breed of ice cream emporium, boasting all sorts of toppings, mix-ins, and smush-ins.

Indeed, it seems the only thing that's plain anymore is that the world of ice cream has changed drastically in recent years.

Now, it's popcorn's turn.

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Bubblegum, shrimp, sour cream and onion, cinnamon, deep chocolate, and nacho are only a few of the flavors set to hit Harvard Square later this month when the Cornpopper store opens on Mt. Auburn St. And while the merchandise may be novel, the Cambridge locate is in no way an experiment Cornpopper stores have already proved successful in Texas, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, according to Steven Gainsborough, the chain's associate owner.

The idea for flavored popcorn at least the variety sold at Cornpopper stores originated with chain owner Charles Bird, who first explored marketing possibilities for the product about 10 years, ago as an employee of the M & M Mars candy firm. After examining the results. Bird took his knowledge of candy flavorings and set out on his own, eventually building 17 stores in the four Southern states and developing some 32 styles of popcorn.

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Together with new outlets slated to open soon at Boston's Downtown Crossing and in Copley Square, the Harvard Square Cornpopper will mark the chain's first venture into the Northern part of the country, Gainsborough says, adding that plans are underway to insure a successful expansion. Cornpopper specialists are currently developing a special Clam Chowder flavor to seduce the taste buds of Bay State residents, whose palates may also be privy to a special diet popcorn that Gainsborough says is in the works.

He adds that depending on the product's success in the metropolitan area, the chain may expand further into other areas of the state. In addition, Gainsborough adds. Cornpopper officials are looking to go beyond the current bounds of the retail outlets and market the various popcorn flavors in supermarkets and liquor stores, supplementing whatever out-of-shop sales might develop from the mail-order business already offered through the chain's stores.

When it goes on sale in the Square, Cornpopper's freshly popped kernels will sell at the rate of about $1 for a portion the size of a medium bag of chips. Interesting prodicts, though, also deserve interesting containers, and Gainsborough offers that his popcorn will also be sold in 1-, 4 1/2-, 6-, and 16-gallon cans. Of course, the cans will be anything but plain--artists have been hired to design them with colorful drawings, lithographs and decals.

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