Popping along

Popping along

One of Michael Pence’s earliest memories dates to the 1950s, when he traveled to the Indiana State Fair with his parents to sell popcorn. He was only 5 years old at the time — but his daughter, Leslie, got her start in the family’s mobile concessionaire business at an even younger age. “I went to my first fair in 1971,” says Leslie Pence. “It was a street fair in Auburn, Indiana, and I was 2 days old.” The week before she was born, Michael and his wife, Etta, had worked a fair in nearby Bluffton, where the mom-to-be also bought Leslie’s baby clothes. 

Today, Michael, Etta, Leslie, and Michael’s brother, Kevin Pence, own and operate Pence’s Concessions from their headquarters at Pence’s Carmel Corn Shoppe (they use the old-fashioned spelling without the second “a”), a multipurpose manufacturing, distribution, and concession trailer facility that sits along U.S. 6 near Bryan, Ohio. Serviced by North Western Electric, the shop encompasses a kitchen as well as a year-round retail store. When customers step inside, they’re sure to notice two things: the irresistible aroma of freshly made popcorn and multiple generations of the Pence family busily doing everything from pouring kernels into a popping machine to stocking the shelves. The Pences produce 18 different kinds of popcorn in flavors ranging from tried-and-true cheese and kettle corn to trendy chocolate mint and banana pudding popcorn, yet caramel corn remains their signature popcorn and a perennial bestseller. 
 “We make the caramel corn from a secret family recipe, and a lot of people tell us they won’t buy any caramel corn but ours,” says Leslie.

Pence family

Pence family members inside Pence’s Carmel Corn Shoppe (from left): Alexis Stewart, baby Jameson Stewart, Leslie Pence, 3-year-old Emmalyn Stewart, Etta Pence, Easton Kime, and Michael Pence.

Leslie and Michael Pence

Pence’s Concessions originated in 1902, when Michael’s grandfather, Clarence Pence, started selling popcorn and peanuts from a pushcart at state fairs. Michael’s father, Don Pence, continued the business in home-built trailers that he towed to fairs and festivals. “My dad didn’t get a manufactured trailer until 1957,” recalls Michael. “I still have that trailer, but it doesn’t travel anymore because we use it for making candy.” In the 1980s, Michael decided to make the company’s concession trailers pink and green. “I picked that combination because I think it looks good and is very colorful,” he says. “Now people recognize those colors and associate them with Pence’s popcorn.”

Beside popcorn, the Pences make and sell a complete menu of such fair-food favorites as candy apples, caramel apples, cotton candy, taffy, corn dogs, and both Italian sausage and Philly steak and cheese sandwiches. “My family has done a very good job of keeping up our quality and reputation,” says Leslie. “Everyone expects our products to be good.” Savvy fairgoers, for example, know that on a warm and sticky July afternoon, nothing is more refreshing than Pence’s fresh-squeezed lemonade. “We make it with real lemons, water, ice, and sugar, then shake it just enough,” says Leslie. 

From mid-spring through the summer, the shop serves as mission control for 18 concession trailers that rotate to and from county fairs, street fairs, and community festivals within a 120-mile radius of Bryan. Typical destinations include Holland, Michigan; Auburn, Indiana; and the Williams, Defiance, and Fulton county fairs in Ohio. Pence’s Concessions, in fact, is practically an institution at the Williams County Fair, which presented the company with an award for 108 years of service. By the time September rolls around, the Pences have dispatched trailers to events in Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas, and during the winter, they go to expos and fairs in Florida. 

“We’re never in one location for more than two weeks,” says Leslie, “so we get to experience big cities, small towns, and differences in regional tastes and cultures.” As it turns out, those differences include candy apples. “We make the coating for our candy apples from scratch with cinnamon flavoring, but once we get south of Cincinnati, customers want them without any flavoring at all,” says Leslie. 

Since Leslie’s daughter, Alexis Stewart, works alongside Etta making candy apples, fudge, peanut brittle, and, of course, popcorn, for the retail store, Pence’s Concessions proudly claims five generations of continuous family involvement. Make that six generations, if you count Leslie’s 3-year-old granddaughter, Emmalyn Stewart, who likes to taste test the cotton candy. “For us, this isn’t just a job,” Leslie says. “It’s our life.” 

Pence’s Carmel Corn Shoppe, 10010 U.S. 6, Bryan, OH 43506. 419-636-0888 or 877-829-6127, www.pencescarmelcorn.com.