Bringing people together one kernel at a time
By ANTHONY FLORES
To say that Darryl Lee has lived a fascinating life would be an understatement. In his eight-and-a-half-year career with the Coast Guard and decades as a semi-conductor engineering technician, Lee has experienced places and cultures all over the world.
“I worked for Texas Instruments, Intel, Samsung, and Freescale. All of these were high-end technical jobs, and my last position was as a senior engineering technician in photolithography,” said Lee. “All it boils down to is working with high-end equipment. I enjoyed it, and you make good money. In that job, when you’re eating, you’re eating well, but when everything drops around the world, it gets a little hectic. You always have to have a side gig.”
Lee’s side gig? His restaurant between Sanderson and Del Rio. With COVID-19, Lee decided it was time to pivot and start having some fun.
“COVID was beating up everything in the restaurant business, so I thought it was time to go back and have some fun,” said Lee. “I have a little restaurant. I had shut down for the winter season and was going to open up for the spring, and then with COVID, I said forget that for now.”
Making popcorn, or “poppin” is a passion for Lee that stems from some of his most cherished memories.
“What got me started poppin’ was the love of popcorn. It brings people together, and it’s just fun,” said Lee. “It comes from my most fun job. It was Swensen’s Ice Cream Parlor. I worked there from the ninth grade to the 12th grade. I don’t think you’ll ever have a sad face with ice cream.”
Lee’s kettle corn business, Poppin’ Around Texas, offers a variety of flavors, including Liberty Hill Gold (cheddar), strawberry, blue raspberry, and sweet and salty. Along with those flavors, Lee has his gourmet flavors, cookies and cream, strawberry cheesecake, creamy dill, and banana pudding.
“The flavors are based on my first job, my most fun job — the ice cream parlor. Swensen’s was like Baskin Robbins, and they have several different flavors,” said Lee. “Now I’m going by my childhood memories and trying to recreate an ice cream parlor but with popcorn. It’s the concept of what an ice cream parlor would have. So with popcorn, we can create different flavors with different ingredients and combinations.”
Joined by his wife, Lee believes not trying to get his business off the ground at all is worse than failing.
“We create everything, and you know the people making it. It’s my wife and me. We put all that love in it,” he said. “I worked for Samsung, and she still works for Apple, but there was a point where we just wanted to have fun in life and try something different. If you don’t try, it’s a guaranteed fail.”
Ever the beacon of positivity, Lee believes that starting this business during uncertain times only leaves room to improve and head in an upward direction.
“A good businessman will adjust. I had a lot of events, but they kept getting canceled. Once this COVID takes its foot off our necks, I think it’ll get even better,” he said. “Right now, I go out and perform under my canopy, with my kettle. I have two stores that, by the end of November, my product will be in.”
Performing for Lee involves sharing the kettle corn making process with the community, allowing them to know the person they’re purchasing from.
“Liberty Hill is my main location. I have all the festivals in Liberty Hill and all the ones in Bertram. That’s what keeps us busy,” he said. “Whenever we have an event, a private party or festivals, trades and some wholesales. That’s where you have a popcorn guy around now. It’s great for local businesses too, and people can get to meet me and know me.”
Why does Lee pop? Why does he travel around Texas and perform at festivals and other events? What is it that took him out of the tech industry and put him in front of a 500-degree kettle? Simple. The opportunity to bring people together one kernel at a time.
“You never have popcorn being angry, it’s a festival snack or a home snack. When you go to a carnival or a circus, you have popcorn,” said Lee. “My mom had three boys, and instead of spending a lot of money, she could get a big bag of kettle corn for five or six bucks. Popcorn is one of those things that, as kids, your mom did it on the stove or microwave. It brings family and friends together. It’s fun food.”
Visit Lee and try some popcorn on Election Day courtesy of The Independent. Lee will be cooking popcorn from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Nov. 3 behind the newspaper office at 921 Loop 332. Let us know you voted and enjoy a free bag of popcorn. Additional bags of popcorn in assorted flavors will be available for sale to take home.