Store pops up on national TV

Cinnamon, wild cherry, chocolate fudge brownies. Ice cream, surely.

And creamy ranch, sour cream and chives, jalapeno. Salad dressings?

Wrong on both counts. Those and about 21 other sweet and savory flavors refer to the various permutations of gourmet popcorn Tim and Chris Heitmann sell at their Popcorn Palace and Candy Emporium on Chicago's Navy Pier and through their ever-growing Internet site.

The Heitmanns, who attended St. Mary's and Notre Dame elementary schools in Michigan City, continued to live here during their secondary school years, but attended high school in Chicago.

Now, the Food Network has found the Heitmanns. In fact, two separate Food Network shows have found them.

Al Roker from "Roker on the Road" and Rachael Ray, she of "$40 a Day," both have filmed segments of their shows at the Popcorn Palace.

Roker's Monday show at 8 p.m. (CDT), puts the focus on small companies that produce unique products. Ray's program, which will feature several Chicago eateries, will visit the Popcorn Palace during the snack segment. "$40 a Day" will air at 9 p.m. (CST) on Oct. 8.

Neither Tim, a graduate of Purdue University, nor Chris, a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, imagined their life's work revolving around popcorn. "But we had an opportunity to open a retail business on Navy Pier," Tim said.

That was in 1995. Ever since, loyal customers and new customers alike simply follow their noses to the delectable popcorn aromas.

In 1998, the Heitmanns opened the catalog mail order and online arms of the business. At the beginning, orders were mailed from Michigan City. "But then we needed a bigger place," Tim said; and then they needed a bigger place still. Now, the warehouse is in Franklin Park, Ill., where Tim spends most of his time while Chris works at Navy Pier. Catalog and online shoppers can choose from a variety of gifts or they can create their own containers of popcorn with their favorite three flavors from the Popcorn Palace's list of 26.

Tim said the corporate gift business is growing by leaping bounds.

For a while, in the early years, nearly every member of the Heitmann family put in some time in the business. These days, Tim Heitmann said, their sister, Natalie, is still involved in the business. "She does a little bit of everything," he said, explaining his sister's role.

Yes, Tim says, popcorn is a wonderful product to sell. It is a familiar product associated with fun-filled events -- movies, ballgames, carnivals. Those who visit the Popcorn Palace, however, quickly see that the familiar has become the exotic with flavors such as white cheddar, macadamia and even pumpkin pie.

As Tim Heitmann says, popcorn is a product whose variety is limited only by imagination.

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