What Happened to the Bay Area's Beloved Pink Popcorn?
How a favored nostalgic treat with a cult-like following met its untimely demise.
Photo via Flickr user Apel Mjausson
The day I moved to Adams Point, the small Oakland, California neighborhood that sits across from Children’s Fairyland, my Cali-born-and-raised mother was insistent: the moment my little girl was old enough, we were all headed to Fairyland for pink popcorn.
Pink popcorn? I had no idea what she was talking about.
It turns out this stuff from my mother’s childhood was also born and raised in the Bay Area—Wright Popcorn & Nut Company has been making packages of pre-popped kernels dyed fluorescent pink since 1940 in their factory in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood (with additional locations in Fresno and Sacramento).
The illustrious treat isn’t just sought after by 60-something Oakland natives on the cusp of grandparenthood—local journalists have been writing tributes to the treat as late as 2010.
But finding packages of this delicacy is just as tough as finding Necco Wafers or Hydrox Cookies. Like so much else that has changed about the Bay Area, pink popcorn is a relic of the past.
High in red dye and corn syrup, it was the symbolic treat of the Bay Area and sold in places like the San Francisco Zoo, Stow Lake Boathouse, Sonoma County Fair, and the still-unchanged Children’s Fairyland in Oakland. The history of the San Francisco-based Wright Popcorn & Co. isn’t easy to trace, despite the fact that pink popcorn isn’t the only treat the company made (they also sold something called “dog on a stick batter” and funnel cake mix). Though it’s physically close to Silicon Valley, the company couldn’t be further from the 21st century. For months, the company’s website has been under construction—and good luck trying to find them on Twitter or Facebook. When I attempted to speak to someone over the phone, repeated voicemails went unanswered (The Better Business Bureau, meanwhile, claims the company went out of business as long ago as August 2015).
After weeks of searching for a human to respond to queries about its history, I started calling up all the candy shops I could find on the West Coast where Google told me pink popcorn had been spotted. From Pleasant Hill to Placerville, not a single shop had any pink popcorn in stock. An individual from Candy Strike Emporium in Placerville told me Wright’s was “no more” and Chico’s Sweet Chico Confections said they hadn’t seen the stuff in three years.
The last sighting of pink popcorn, from what I could gather via Facebook, was in 2015, when a member of “Memories of the San Francisco Peninsula” shared their discovery. George Rush wrote in August 2015: “Life without pink popcorn is unfathomable!!! What a cruel and cynical world. Wright’s pink popcorn forever!”
So how (and why) does a favored nostalgic treat with a cult-like following meet its untimely demise? Like Sen-Sen and Flicks before it, pink popcorn was a product of a bygone era: A world where food dye made an appearance in everything from salads to side dishes, and pre-popped popcorn could be packaged and sold on shelves for months on end, despite inevitability becoming dry and stale.
As the landscape of the Bay Area continues to change—reports indicate that 62% of low income households in the thirteen-county region live in neighborhoods at risk of or having already experienced displacement—it’s not surprising that transplants have no interest in the novelty treats of Bay Area’s past.
“I say this with respect for food traditions,” says Katherine Spiers, the former food editor at LA Weekly and full-time host and producer of the food history podcast Smart Mouth, “but it’s one of those things that I can see is important [to natives] but is probably not going to resonate with newcomers [moving into the Bay Area].”
Facebook user Robert Aranda didn’t mince words as to why pink popcorn was no more: “It must be the techno-parasites, who have no sense of history in The City, [who] are responsible for its' demise! It could be because I [n]ever got a fresh package. The only ones who lose out are the seagulls at the zoo.” (edited for clarity)
The beauty of packaged foods in the 1950s might have been convenience, but Spiers notes that today’s youths are more socially-conscious than previous generations. “People are making thoughtful choices when they can ,” she adds, which has helped to shift food focus on more homegrown, handmade, know- your-purveyor foods that often take more prep time—time that many families balancing children and work didn’t have just a few decades prior. Organic food sales have tripled in the last decade, and since 2009
the top 25 food and beverage companies in the United States lost $18 billion in market share as people become more skeptical of processed, packaged foods. And even for those who love a packaged treat, there are significantly more choices on the market than there might have been during pink popcorn’s debut in the 1940s.
Another reason for pink popcorn’s decline could be that it’s extremely easy to make at home (Pinterest is littered with recipes), or that our palates have simply changed. After all, notes Spiers—whose mother grew up in Oakland—It’s-It Ice Cream, “a legend of San Francisco” that started in 1928, has gone from local distribution to national recognition and is beloved by both natives and transplants alike. “A lot of it just has to do with what tastes good, on its own,” she says.
The so-called “seductive” treat, as Bay Area native Lesley Stern once said on Facebook, was often a disappointment. Stern followed up her sentiment by saying “stateless and pink food held together in brick form. By bite #3, I was done and shared the rest with peacocks, giraffes, and gorillas at the Oakland Zoo.” So maybe no one ever really loved the taste of the stuff, but they loved the memories.
Maybe pink popcorn is iconic by legacy alone, Maybe it should come as no surprise that my neighborhood—or any other in the Bay Area—hasn’t been stocking the treat for years. So even if I could snatch up a ‘brick’ for my daughter, I’m not sure I would want to—and even my mother might agree.