A Wheaton Traditional Since 1921
A cherished landmark in the heart of downtown Wheaton, Illinois at 111 1/4 Front Street – The Little Popcorn Store is perhaps one of the most loved and narrowest stores in the Chicago area measuring 4-feet wide by 64 feet long.
In 1921, Wheaton resident E. Claire Brown placed a roof over an alleyway at 109 1/4 Front Street that was only 3.5 feet wide and 30 feet long. Wedged between a barber shop and livery stand, Brown set up his first shop.
During his first year, Brown experimented with 10 kinds of popcorn, a half dozen oils, and nearly 100 different recipes to find the perfect combination for his signature popcorn. "It's ordinary cottonseed oil," he said, "with a little bit of something else added." However, Brown never revealed what his "something else" was.
Fourteen years later in 1935, Brown moved a few doors down to our current location at 111 1/4 Front Street. Placing a roof over the alleyway, the newer store provided much needed space – 1/2 a foot wider and twice as long!
A Strong Legacy
According to a newspaper article in the Chicago Daily News dated May 27, 1959, Brown sold $15,000 worth of popcorn in 1958 to over 100,000 popcorn connoisseurs. Many came from all over the Chicago area to buy Brown's popcorn – and some as far away as Milwaukee. When asked why, Brown replied, "most of them say it's the tastiest they can buy anywhere." On many sunny summer Sundays, as many as 50 people at a time could be found lined up in front of the narrow shop ready to buy Brown's delicious popcorn.
Apart from the ingredients, Brown's popcorn magic required the wrist-action of a billiard shark. "While it's cooking," he said, "the popcorn has to be agitated just so. Too much and it won't pop quickly enough. Too little and it burns."
Sharing the Goodness
Brown used to ship his popcorn to friends all over the country. He gave it up, he said, "because of federal interstate commerce regulations." "Plus," he continued, "I had to pay my part-time help too much to make it profitable."
The bright eyed retired accountant expanded his offerings beyond popcorn. In the back of the store, Brown had 70 apothecary jars filled with different kinds of penny candy. The candy was sold separately or given away free to children who bought popcorn.
A Legacy Continues
In 1979 the In-Between Store was purchased by the Wakefield family who owned the nearby Front Street Junction restaurant. They renamed their new store to the name we are familiar with today: the Little Popcorn Store.
With a desire to keep the store faithful to how people remembered it, the Wakefield's made minor improvements, most notably raising the roof to give the store the feeling of more space. In addition, the candy line was expanded, featuring both vintage classics and new sweet favorites.
The Wakefield's son, Bill, took over running the day-to-day operations of the store.
When asked the secret to our great tasting popcorn, Bill would reply, “it’s not what we do to the popcorn, it’s what we don’t do.”
“We use white corn, which is sweeter and smaller and less tough than yellow corn. It’s lighter and doesn’t need butter. No palm, coconut or peanut oil is used in the popping. We just use a little bit of vegetable oil, which I think keeps our popcorn from becoming stale the next day. Other than that, it’s just lightly salted so people can really get that corn taste."
Keeping it All in the Family
Never one to retire, Bill passed away in 2019 doing a job he absolutely loved for over 40 years. Today, Bill's sister Donna picked up where Bill left off and is the current owner. When not teaching as a university professor, she continues to improve and make the Little Popcorn Store an even better place to visit and enjoy.
The Tradition Continues
Today, stepping into the store’s small, quaint space is like stepping back in time. Popcorn is still freshly popped, candy lines the wall, and locals greet each other warmly while welcoming newcomers to this very special place called The Little Popcorn Store.