When the salty, buttery smell of fresh-popped corn wafts through the air, mouths start watering. It’s a reaction one Madison County company is proud to be partially responsible for.
Heart of Dixie Popcorn and Supply, located just off Moore’s Mill Road in Huntsville, is a one-stop carnival food shop for individual consumers, schools and businesses. The 10 acres adjacent to the building are planted in the namesake’s crop, and a winding driveway paves the way past the fields to the front entrance. Once inside, visitors are welcomed by a red and white checkerboard floor, a long hallway filled with family photos, a mirrored showroom stocked with equipment and an intoxicating aroma. The atmosphere is intentional, said Heart of Dixie’s Ianni Nicolaou, who married into the family-owned business earlier this year and handles the company’s website and marketing efforts.
“We want people to walk in and immediately feel this is a place where fun happens,” said Nicolaou, 27, whose wife, Haley, was raised on the farm that grows Heart of Dixie’s popcorn. “If it’s something you find at a fair or carnival, it’s something you can buy here to recreate the experience.”
Heart of Dixie’s showroom is unique in its own right, but the company’s growth into a successful supplier of fun foods began where other stories about food do – the farm.
Former Madison County Farmers Federation President Buddy Darwin planted the seeds of Alabama’s only popcorn farm nearly 35 years ago on a few acres of his family’s Pine Lawn Farms property, which was established in 1817. Darwin’s inaugural popcorn planting was more of a test to see if it would work in area’s the well-drained soil. Since most of the popcorn consumed in the U.S. is grown in the Midwest, Darwin said he wasn’t sure what to expect, but he jokes things seem to have worked out OK so far.
“With the first crop, I went nearly door-to-door selling it, telling people it’d be the best popcorn they ever ate. I just had a feeling it would be,” said Darwin, 75, a lifelong farmer. “Turns out, it was.”
Described by his family as a ‘real wheeler-and-dealer,’ Darwin realized the potential in expanding his product line early in the company’s history. As customer requests grew, so did the business.
“I never thought Heart of Dixie would be a full-fledged, multi-product business like it is now, but I know the first rule of good salesmanship is never taking ‘no’ for an answer,” Darwin admitted, noting he always told customers he could get them what they needed. “In the first couple years we grew popcorn, people would come up to me and ask if I sold bags, too. I didn’t, but I knew a good idea when I heard it. Bags followed suit, then other containers, and then we opened the store. The rest is history.”
Darwin said he couldn’t be prouder of the company, or his family’s involvement in its success. His son, son-in-law, granddaughter and grandson-in-law are his proverbial right hands with daily tasks.
“What we all do is a labor of love, and I think our customers appreciate that,” he said. “I’ve always loved a good sale, and my family shares that drive.”
New products are always popping up at Heart of Dixie. Today, the company offers cotton candy, nachos, snow cones, pretzels, funnel cakes, lemonade, ice cream and general concession supplies. The team also services and restores equipment. Though its merchandise offering easily fills a 200-page catalog, Heart of Dixie’s first product remains its specialty.
“Our family has always worked hard to consistently offer customers a high-quality, delicious product,” said Darwin’s son-in-law, Bentley Walls, who manages the farm alongside Darwin’s son, Bart. “They like knowing where their food originates, and we like being a part of their family in some way. It’s all about the snacking experience.”
The Birmingham Zoo is among Dixie’s loyal customers. Selecting an Alabama company to purchase concessions from was a no-brainer, said Jason Mohr of Southern Food Services, whose company contracts food purchases for the zoo’s Safari CafÃ©.
“When we selected a supplier a few years back, choosing a local company was convenient, and it was just the right thing to do,” said Mohr. “Heart of Dixie is a great company to work with – incredibly friendly and always willing to help in a bind.”
Businesses and larger concession-based operations like the Birmingham Zoo are typical customers of Heart of Dixie, but Customer Relations Manager Haley Walls Nicolaou, 25, said orders of all sizes are welcome.
“Orders range from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars, and customers are everywhere from Alabama to Washington and even into Scotland. Whatever the size and wherever they originate, we are happy to fill any request,” she said. “We love our customers, big and small.”
Heart of Dixie Popcorn and Supply, located at 191 Darwin Road in Huntsville, is open weekdays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. To order products, request a catalog or learn more, visit HeartOfDixiePopcorn.com or call (256) 828-3270.