caramel popcorn

Chicago Is the Home of Caramel Popcorn!

Published on April 5, 2023

In celebration of National Caramel Popcorn Day on April 6, eATLAS presents the histories of two iconic Chicago-based caramel popcorn makers: Cracker Jack and Garrett Popcorn.

By Dave Lifton (@daveeatschicago

Of all the products introduced at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition—including Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit, Cream of Wheat, Pabst Blue Ribbon, the brownie — perhaps none has been woven into the fabric of Americana like Cracker Jack.

The beloved combination of caramel corn and peanuts began with Frederick William “Fritz” Rueckheim, who was born in Germany but emigrated to Calumet Township in 1869. Following the Great Chicago Fire, he moved into the city, where he soon became partners with a popcorn vendor named William Brinkmeyer. Within a few years, Fritz was solely in charge and brought over his brother Louis from Germany to help him run the business.

At the World’s Columbian Exposition, the Rueckheim brothers sold a combination of molasses-flavored caramel popcorn and added peanuts. But a couple of problems kept it from taking off: The molasses caused the popcorn to all stick together in a clump, and the quality of the confection quickly deteriorated when exposed to air.

The first issue was reportedly solved by Louis in 1896. It’s believed—the answer remains a secret—that he added a bit of oil to the molasses mixture to help separate the kernels. Upon sampling the improved creation, someone responded, “That’s a crackerjack!” The product now had a name instead of the generic “Candied Popcorn and Peanuts” they had been using. The Rueckheims also came up with a slogan, “The more you eat, the more you want.”

A few years later, an employee named Henry Eckstein solved the second. He created a wax-lined box that he boasted was “triple proof”—impermeable to moisture, dust, and germs. Keeping Cracker Jack fresh allowed it to be sold nationwide. In 1902, Eckstein became a partner in the company, now called Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein.

Then came arguably the most successful example of free product placement in American history. In 1908, a vaudeville performer and songwriter named Jack Norworth was riding a New York City subway train and saw a sign advertising a baseball game at the Polo Grounds. Even though he’d never been to a baseball game, Norworth was nonetheless inspired to pen “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” complete with the couplet, “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack / I don’t care if I never get back.” Albert Von Tilzer added the music, and the song forever linked Cracker Jack with the National Pastime.

Four years later came the addition of the prize into every box, a major selling point. But during World War I, the patriotism of German-born Americans was called into question. To prove that their loyalty was with the United States, Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein changed the color scheme to red, white, and blue, and introduced a pair of mascots—Sailor Jack and his dog, Bingo in 1918. The chubby-cheeked Sailor Jack was modeled on Fritz’s grandson Robert, who died of pneumonia two years later at the age of seven, and Eckstein’s dog Russell was the inspiration for Bingo.

After the war, Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein added a layer between their German heritage and the public by changing the corporate name to the Cracker Jack Company. Borden purchased Cracker Jack in 1964 and, since 1997, it has been owned by PepsiCo through its Frito-Lay subsidiary. 

However, Cracker Jack has lost a lot of its popularity in recent decades. In an effort to revive consumer interest, Frito-Lay introduced Cracker Jack’D in 2012, with flavors such as Cocoa Java Power Bites, Spicy Pizzeria, and Buffalo Ranch. However, the line was discontinued within a few years. By 2016, Frito-Lay had stopped adding the prize, instead giving customers a QR code that takes them to an online arcade.

If Cracker Jack merely evokes feelings of quaint nostalgia rather than fierce customer loyalty these days, the same can’t be said about another Chicago institution, Garrett Popcorn. In 1949, Gladys Garrett opened her first shop at 10 W. Madison St. in the Loop with four flavors: Plain, Buttery, CaramelCrisp, and CheeseCorn.

By 1977, they noticed that customers were mixing the CaramelCrisp and the CheeseCorn on their own, so they started combining the flavors in-house. It has since become Garrett’s signature product, Garrett also sells CaramelCrisp with nuts and offers seasonal flavors.

In 2005, Lance and Megan Chody purchased Garrett and have expanded it beyond the Windy City, with shops in Dallas, Detroit, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Dubai, and the Far East. The Chodys also acquired another much-loved Chicago confection— Frango Chocolates —in 2017. Garrett made national news in January 2023 when two local Congresswomen, Jan Schakowsky and Robin Kelly, brought tins of Garrett Popcorn into the U.S. Capitol as the vote for Speaker of the House entered its third day. 

Garrett continues the tradition of caramel popcorn set by Cracker Jack half a century earlier. And they’re both part of a legacy that once earned Chicago the nickname of the “Candy Capital of the World.”

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