Little Lad’s popcorn has been a fan favorite within Maine’s state borders for twenty-five-plus years. It was created by Maria Fleming, a young mother and business owner in a small town in Maine. She had a rare passion and absolute determination to provide healthy food for her community, particularly its more impoverished members. Driven by this higher calling, she was uncompromising: her food must be vegan, nutritious, affordable, and taste great to every palate!
Now, a quarter-century later, three young men from the Little Lad’s team have built a new factory right here in Brattleboro. They, too, are determined, passionate, and uncompromising, and they’ve expanded on Maria’s mission: they’re bringing Little Lad’s principles and plant-based nutrition nationwide.
In the mid-90s, Maria opened a café that served simple foods like soups and sandwiches. In order to save money, she switched the basket of chips she put on the tables to a basket of homemade popcorn, which she made herself using a recipe of her own invention. It was savory, slightly salty, and perfectly seasoned with dried herbs. This “Herbal Corn,” initially an afterthought, became so popular that she started packaging and selling it separately, until eventually it became the cornerstone of the Little Lad’s business.
Maria never spent a dime on advertising or marketing of any sort; it’s just so good that it became a fan favorite through word of mouth. It’s even in the Portland, ME, Whole Foods, where it has a permanent end-cap display with rows of the popcorn in its original packaging: cellophane bags with paper labels stuck on by hand, with wacky fonts and bright colors.
The original Herbal flavor is far and away the most popular, but over the years other varieties have been created within the requirements of the original Little Lad’s standards. The popcorn is crunchy, salty (but not too salty), savory, and wholesome. It’s sort of like what you’d imagine a kindly hippie grandmother would serve her grandkids as an after-school snack, if she was also super skilled in the kitchen. You feel good when you eat it. If you go to the website you’ll see countless customers raving about how much they love it and can’t get enough. Some say it’s addictive. Some buy it by the case. Canadians stock up when they’re south of the border. One Little Lad’s fan even served it at her wedding.
Recently, one of Maria’s sons, Orion, came together with two long-time family friends, Arthur and Ted, to produce Little Lad’s popcorn on a larger scale. They decided to make Brattleboro the home base for their endeavor—Southern VT is a great location for wider distribution both south and west, and Arthur has been based in this area for some time. He was previously the general manager at Five College Farms in Hadley, MA, and is now married to a So. VT local, Sarah Miller, of the Miller family dairy farm.
It hasn’t even been a year since they moved into the enormous space on Old Ferry Road, but it’s already been in operation for months. A ton of work had to be done to get it up and running. They repainted everything, even the ceiling (probably 30’ high), and the floor has a shiny new coat of sealer. They built new walls and bathrooms. Everything is fresh and clean and bright, almost like a movie set. Cases of popcorn and ingredients are stacked in giant quantities, with space for at least four times more. The centerpiece is a massive stainless steel machine that pops, seasons, and bags the popcorn in one high-tech assembly line; its polish and precision gives it the same beauty as a carefully crafted luxury watch, but on the scale of a brontosaurus. The facility is poised and ready to make enough popcorn to literally feed the entire eastern seaboard and the midwest.
The intricacies of mechanical food production are mysterious to those of us who have never worked in the field; it’s tempting to think you just put the kernels in one end, the seasoning in the middle, and voila! You get perfect popcorn bagged and ready to go at the end of the line. But this is not the case—as with everything, there is an art to it. A lot of tweaking and finessing needs to happen to get a consistent product, and consistency is paramount if Little Lad’s is going to be successful on a larger scale. Luckily, Orion has a mind for engineering and a knack for creating recipe formulations that work at scale. His years of experience working in the Maine production facility and innate abilities are the key to getting the product up to the high quality standards that have been one of the hallmarks of Little Lad’s since the beginning.
In contrast, back in Maine at the factory where Maria still works, Little Lad’s production is still done the old fashioned way: by hand in small batches at a small, homegrown facility in the little town of Corinth. There are about twenty employees who currently work there, in a space that’s quite small relative to the big place on Old Ferry Road. It’s been a family affair since the beginning, with Maria’s children helping out and all the employees being friends of the family in one way or another. Her life is dedicated to making healthy food accessible to all because she believes it’s the right thing to do, not to make a profit.
With the new Brattleboro factory, Little Lad’s is expanding beyond what Maria has historically felt comfortable with. But they are adamant that they will not compromise Little Lad’s ideals. The spirit of Maria’s original intentions remain intact: they want to do good for their customers and their community, no matter how big it gets.
That commitment also applies to the family-focused approach to their staff. They’ve hired two additional employees so far: Chris, who is in charge of sales, and Jose in production, for a total of five people working in the vast Brattleboro space. As their list of customers grows, their staff will, too, and the small team here in Brattleboro is crystal clear in its mission to hire folks not just for a workaday paycheck, but to develop their employees, enrich their lives, form relationships, and serve the community through being a good employer and growing the local economy as they bring in more and more business. Whatever success they have will be shared with Brattleboro, too.
Brattleboro Lad’s is technically in a formal partnership with Maria in Maine—they’re not separate businesses, but there is a distinction between the two locations in terms of the look of the products and the regions they’re sold in. Maria is still the founder, and produces most of the popcorn sold in Maine, in addition to other snacks packaged with the original funky labels (she also still runs a Little Lad’s cafe). As they prove that the new factory is able to maintain the same commitment to affordable, plant-based, high quality food, Maria hands over more of the orders and gives them more freedom to grow into ever-expanding markets. Soon that Whole Foods end-cap will be stocked with the new, updated packages coming out of Brattleboro.
It wouldn’t be right to say that the Brattleboro team has improved on the original recipe, but there have been some updates that have made the popcorn accessible to a wider audience. They’ve stopped using soybean oil, opting instead for sunflower and coconut oils so that people with soy allergies can enjoy it, too. And they’ve gotten numerous certifications: Non-GMO, OU Kosher, Vegan, and Gluten Free. But the popcorn is still living up to its fan-favorite status with these modifications; it has passed the taste test of the original Little Lad’s fans and makers.
2024 is going to be a big year for the new team. It will be a test of the new factory’s ability to handle larger orders from more retailers with consistency and an uncompromising commitment to the Little Lad’s standards. Recouping the investments that have been made in the business is also a top priority, and the team here is very determined and motivated to make that happen as quickly as possible. They’re learning as they go, and growing fast.
They hope to have three new flavors available in the spring, and they’re redesigning their packaging again with professional assistance. The bags currently on display in the Co-op were actually designed by Arthur! Now they’ve partnered with the same Maine-based firm that gave Vermont Creamery its recent reboot; those new bags will debut before year’s end. Their hope is that the new design will make their snacks more appealing on the shelf, and more illustrative of Little Lad’s long history as a women-owned, plant-based, values-based business.
The Brattleboro lads are committed to carrying on the Little Lad’s tradition of affordable, plant-based, healthy snacks, and a family-focused approach to the business—not only because they need Maria’s trust, but because they, too, simply believe it’s the right thing to do. They wish us well; they are clear in the idea that they exist to bring health and wellbeing to all who partake of their wonderful food. We at the Brattleboro Co-op wish them well, too.
By Ruth Garbus