Then: The letter K was an alpha in the vocabulary of the staff and owners of the Hastings Karmelkorn store at the Imperial Mall, a popcorn and snack shop that flourished on the appetites of mall-goers throughout the store’s 22-year history. In keeping with the shop’s name, longtime owners Larry and Georgia Fahrenholtz put the letter K on the front of the names of many of the shop’s snacks. Karmel Korn. Cheese Korn. Cinnamon Korn. Popkorn balls. Kotton Kandy. The shop also became notorious for its syrupy-sweet slurpees, appropriately named “Coke Koolers” for their Coca-Cola base.
Now: The three former Karmelkorn locations in Imperial Mall have been replaced with very different — and some vacant — storefronts, as is the case with many spaces in the shopping center.
When the mall was being developed, retail shops of all kinds were making a go of it in the new shopping center. Fahrenholtz moved his family to Hastings in 1970 to work at the new Hinky Dinky dime store, which was adjacent to where Kmart now sits at the mall.
The Karmelkorn store opened in December 1970 and came up for sale 1973.
“I had always wanted to own my own business. I had a friend who was a realtor and when he told me the shop was for sale, I took the chance,” Larry said. “I originally bought it so my wife could run it, but pretty soon I could see how we could make a living out of it doing it together.”
The Fahrenholtz family took over the business in December 1973. Larry and Georgia and their four children — Sandy, Don, Rick and Tammy — all helped mix popcorn in the popper, produce treats, and run the register, often working seven days a week.
“Just hearing that popcorn popper brings back memories,” said Sandy Frerichs (Fahrenholtz), Larry and Georgia’s daughter, who worked at the store beginning when she was in junior high. At one time, the Fahrenholtz family had three generations working at the shop at the same time, as Sandy’s son, Chad, worked there when he was a teenager.
The Karmelkorn store employed about 15 part-time staff members with up to eight of them working at a time, depending on customer traffic. Weekends and holiday shopping seasons were the busiest times.
The staff at Karmelkorn had the ability to make 35 different flavors of popcorn, including fruit flavors, a “rainbow” pop and a “sour cream and onion” variety, although they only had a handful in production at any one time. The popcorn was available in boxes of five sizes — “pee wee,” “junior,” “mom” size, “dad” size, and “family” size.
The shop also sold chocolates, cotton candy, soft pretzels, drinks and “popkorn balls” in various novelty shapes. The staff was commissioned to craft unique sculptures out of popcorn that included buildings, trains, rockets and the seasonal sculptures of snowmen, jack-o-lanterns, Easter bunnies, Christmas trees and Santa Claus figures. They also sold popcorn in large tins around the holidays.
“During the holiday season, there was a continuous din of noise,” Frerichs said. “Sometimes we worked around the clock during the holidays in order to get enough product made to fill all our Christmas orders. It was a busy place in its heyday.”
In 1975, the then-marketing director of the Imperial Mall urged the Fahrenholtz family to attempt to build the “world’s largest popcorn ball.”
They accepted the challenge.
To achieve the feat, a handful of employees worked a total of 60 hours, cooking popcorn in five-gallon batches and gradually adding to the sculpture, until a 13-foot wide creation was complete. The final popcorn ball was a combination of 140 pounds of raw popcorn and corn syrup, 120 pounds of sugar and 17 pounds of butter.
The staff submitted the endeavor to the Guinness Book of World Records, but it was never approved due to the lack of competition in the category. Still, the huge, gooey creation attracted big attention in the Hastings area.
“We had to spray adhesive around the outside. We thought maybe we could cut it up and eat it, but so many people came to see it that became impossible. There was too much traffic,” Larry said. “People kept coming from all around. At that time, the Imperial Mall drew customers from down in Kansas and all over this area. The giant popcorn ball was a hit.”
In the 1980s, the Hastings Karmelkorn shop moved from its first location in the Imperial Mall by Brodkeys in the northeast corner of the mall to the Worlds of Food and Fun food court, which was in the center of the mall where Herbergers currently sits. The court had six restaurants in its circle, and Karmelkorn sat close to the mall’s main thoroughfare, near a seating area designed to look like a patio.
Having a background in retail, Larry expanded the Karmelkorn business at the mall to include wholesale business, as well. Cashway Candies of Hastings distributed some large popcorn orders for the store and Karmelkorn took large orders for parties, events and holidays from people and businesses all over the region.
“When I worked at Hinky Dinky, I got experience in volume sale, and so I had bigger visions for Karmelkorn than just a snack shop,” Larry said.
In 1989, the Fahrenholtz family dropped the Karmelkorn franchise name and renamed their operation Larry’s Poppin’ Shop. The kiosk moved to its final location in the newest food court at Imperial Mall in the early 90s.
At that location, the shop acquired many regular customers who would walk laps around the mall and then come to Karmelkorn for coffee and rolls.
“It was very much a family atmosphere,” Frerichs said. “The walkers would come and grab their coffee and then stay and chat. We got to know many of them pretty well.”
The Fahrenholtzs sold the shop in 1996, but the legacy of the Fahrenholtz’s management would not be forgotten by the community. The Fahrenholtz family had befriended several generations of mall-goers and mall employees, to which they attribute their longtime success and the fun atmosphere of their business.
“I still have people come up to me and say ‘I used to get Coke Coolers all the time as a kid,” Frerichs said, adding that her parents’ management skills were a huge contributor to Karmelkorn’s positive legacy.
“Dad’s favorite quote was ‘thanks a million.’ Every customer got a ‘thanks a million.’ The shop was his element. He enjoyed just about every minute of it, and he was great at working with employees and customers,” Frerichs said. “He set a wonderful example for us kids.”
“I’m a hands-on person. The satisfaction of being at the shop and being a part of the everyday running of it was the best part for me,” Larry said. “We didn’t get rich at it, but I got to live my dream.”