Lugo’s business is popping

Innovation keeps couple going during pandemic


It may be a popular treat at the fair, but the kettle corn and caramel corn produced by Lugo’s Gourmet Popcorn and Lemonade isn’t just a summer treat.

The small portable family business operated by Ruben and Mary Jo Lugo of West Liberty continues to grow, popping out new flavors and getting to more and more event venues as the home-cooked popcorn and lemonade business celebrates it’s 25th year selling the special popcorn.

Purchased from Mary Jo’s father, John Mickey, who is initially from Columbus Junction and started the business in 1995, the Lugos have been popping corn on their own since 2006 and have built quite a reputation in the area for their snack food. Mickey, now 83, is still popping corn for consumers in Florida and started the business because he and his late wife, Carol, wanted a business “they could travel with.”

“Gourmet popcorn is different from just popcorn because of the taste,” said Mary Jo Lugo, noting the company offers “popcorn that is of great quality and specially made unlike most others.”

The secret is adding “just the right amount of sweetness in our kettle corn” to offer a great taste without the sugar being scorched or brown in color.

“We save the brown color for our caramel corn,” she laughs. “It takes talent and craftsmanship to produce a popcorn at over 500 degrees in temperature without burning it in the process,” complimenting her husband, Ruben, at perfecting that process.

Although the firm specializes in kettle corn and caramel corn flavors in small and large sizes, they have created special sizes and flavors for special occasions like weddings or other events including popping cinnamon, cocoa and jalapeño flavors.

She said the business has many benefits including the fact they’re teaching their children, Jacob, 10, and Isabella, 12, about the business life along with spending a lot of time together. Mary Jo said teaching the children responsibility is a key to the family business. While Reuben cooks the popcorn, Mary Jo bags it and is the primary salesperson behind the counter while the two children stay involved with setting up for events, selling popcorn to customers. Jacob even hopes one day he’s stirring the kettle to pop the kernels.

The couple said their busiest season is during the summer months when they sell a lot of their popular home made “old-fashioned” lemonade to go with the popcorn, although they get to at least 12 events a year, six times as many as when they started.

The Lugo’s currently only offer their products at events – many times held in West Liberty and the area – and have offered porch delivery from their home as an option this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic challenges, something she says the family may offer again in the near future. The family said they are also looking at an on-line ordering service.

The Lugos said lemonade became part of the menu back in 1996 when she offered the refreshment with her dad’s kettle corn business during the summer. “It was a hit,” she said, noting the two compliment each other well, even adding strawberry lemonade, using real strawberries and lemons. “It is definitely more expensive and labor intensive to make but it is the only way and our customers love it,” she said.

The Lugos say they’ve been fortunate to be able to set up at Fred’s Feed a couple of times this summer when other events were cancelled due to the virus. “The local support we received from the community was very heart warming,” she said.