Five days a week, Constantino Fernandez sets up his portable iron kettle and tent at spots across South Florida to hand-pop batches of kettle corn for his customers.
"It’s sweet, it’s good, it’s crunchy and it’s addicting," said Stephan Useche, one of Fernandez’ regular customers. "I open the bag and that is it. It’s gone. I eat it all."
Fernandez, 50, owner of Incredible Kettle Corn, is carrying on a popcorn-making tradition he said originated by European pioneers in pig slaughterhouses and cornfields more than 200 years ago.
"It was almost by mistake that kettle corn was created," said Fernandez, who lives in Kendall.
Kettle corn differs from movie-theater popcorn in a couple of ways: it uses mushroom kernels instead of butterfly kernels, and it contains both salt and sugar.
"It’s the best taste," said customer Yanina Velez, who normally purchases several bags to share with her family. "I’m from Argentina, so popcorn there is sweet. This one reminds me of the popcorn over there because it’s sweet and salty."
Fernandez serves flavor combinations like caramel and chocolate, blue raspberry and cherry, and caramel and green apple. He sells it for $3 to $5 depending on flavor and location.
"It’s a gourmet type of popcorn because you’re adding flavors," said Fernandez. "It’s not regular popcorn."
Each combination is colored according to its flavor. Cherry is a shade of cherry red, blue raspberry is cobalt blue and the chocolate is a chocolate brown.
"We’re still experimenting with different types," said Fernandez, a Cuban-American born and raised in Miami.
A few times a week, Fernandez enjoys preparing a specialty item, such as jalapeño kettle corn. He chops up a couple of green jalapeño peppers and throws them into the hot kettle to pop a batch.
The spicy aroma pierces his eyes and burns his throat, making him cough, he said.
"I consider myself a tough man, but these jalapeños are tougher," said Fernandez, who warns his customers that it must be eaten on the spot to keep it from going stale quickly.
Fernandez chooses his set-up locations through trial and error.
"I’m still trying out places," he said. "I think it’s better from place to place. Not just one place."
All year-round, he might be spotted at universities, festivals and farmer’s markets across Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
He also has a second stand which his nephew Virgilio Dieppa helps him run.
"We’re planning on going big," said Dieppa in reference to expanding the business.
Each morning, Fernandez announces his set up locations through Facebook and Twitter.
"Facebook has been a good thing as far as advertising and keeping in contact with the people," said Fernandez, who did missionary work in Romania for 10 years before starting his own business.
Fernandez returned to Miami when he learned his parents were ill.
He took care of them for several years. When his father passed away, he looked after his mother and had to find a job that would allow him to create his own work schedule.
About a year ago, he launched Incredible Kettle Corn, after tasting kettle corn at a farmer’s market for the first time in his life.
"At that moment, I didn’t even know what kettle corn was," he said. "But when I did, that is what got me going."
It also inspired the company’s name.
But Fernandez realized hand-popping kettle corn wasn’t as simple as he thought.
He attributes long hours of practice and mistakes to helping him develop his own style of kettle corn.
"It’s a long process," he said. "It’s just like anything else when you cook."
Each bag contains 210 calories, 17 grams of fat and 9 grams of sugar.
But Fernandez said there is something else that makes his kettle corn unique.
“There’s one ingredient I haven’t shown you,” he said with a smirk. “And that ingredient involves two things: enthusiasm, and love.”