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Resident gives gourmet popcorn a natural twist

Woodbury resident Brenda Stanton produces all-natural energy bars and several flavors of gourmet popcorn via her business Driving Force Energy Co. She sells her popcorn and energy bars at the St. Paul Farmer's Market. Staff photo by Amber Kispert.1 / 2
Blueberry caramel is one of several flavors of gourmet popcorn Brenda Stanton produces for her natural foods business Driving Force Energy. Staff photo by Amber Kispert.2 / 2

Brenda Stanton is busy during the work week as a paraprofessional at Pine Hill Elementary in Cottage Grove. But when away from the school, Stanton can be found experimenting in her kitchen.

The Woodbury resident runs a business, Driving Force Energy Co., that sells all-natural energy bars and gourmet popcorn.

This isn't your ordinary butter lover's special or kettle corn. Stanton's flavors are what some might call eclectic, for popcorn anyway: blueberry, chocolate, peanut butter, peppermint, jalapeno, strawberry, rhubarb, caramel and even spicy habanera.

Energy bars are themed as "PB & J," "cranberry almond" and "cashew cherry berry."

Stanton said she tries to use as many locally grown foods as possible.

"I've always cooked," she said. "I grew up cooking."

Stanton cooks all of her products at the Newport United Methodist Church kitchen and sells them at local farmer's markets.

Kitchen experiments

Stanton first began dabbling in making energy bars about three years ago when she worked as a manager at Fresco Foods, which became Kowalski's.

In her job, Stanton would experiment with different foods to see what she could come up with for the company.

"I was trying to look at different ideas to expand what we cold do there," she said.

During that process, Stanton began experimenting with energy bars after looking online.

Stanton said she wanted to use all-natural ingredients such as grains, fruit, honey, pure vanilla, and molasses. You won't find corn syrup in any of her recipes.

"In a lot of energy bars there are things you can't even pronounce so you have to wonder what they are," she said.

After Kowalski's purchased the company, Stanton pitched her recipe to the executive chef, however he wanted the recipe to market it himself.

"I said 'I'm not giving you the recipe, I came up with the recipe,'" she said. "I thought 'Why can't I market it.'"

Thus Driving Force Energy Co. was born.

Playing with popcorn

About a year and half ago, Stanton began making gourmet popcorn after being inspired by a friend who said she had seen such flavors in another market out West.

"The popcorn was blueberry and all of these funny flavors," she said. "But they're not all natural so I started to wonder if I could do it with natural ingredients.

"I wanted to make the popcorn more healthy, but it's still probably not that healthy for you."

Her very first batch was caramel. She then experimented with other, more adventurous flavors.

"I flubbed up several times," she said.

Stanton said the key to the sweet popcorn -- the blueberry, the strawberry and the rhubarb -- is to use dried ingredients.

Shortly after Stanton had mastered her sweet popcorn, she was approached by a friend to experiment with some of his peppers.

"So, that started the spicy popcorn," she said.

Stanton currently has three spicy popcorn recipes -- jalapeno, sweet and spicy with cayenne pepper and the "sinfully hot" with habanera peppers.

Stanton warns to not be deceived by the sweet caramel taste at the beginning; the aftertaste will get you.

Stanton is currently dabbling in creating pumpkin pie popcorn, caramel apple popcorn and cheese popcorn.

When Stanton is at the farmer's markets, she said she definitely gets some confused looks from customers over her unique popcorn flavors.

"Don't knock it until you try it," she said. "I get such self-gratification when my recipes turn out."

Brenda Stanton sells her Driving Force Energy Co. energy bars and popcorns at the St. Paul Farmer's Market every Saturday from 8 a.m.-1 p.m., at the Golden Fig, located on Grand Ave. in St. Paul, at the Mississippi Market Food Co-op, on Selby Ave. in St. Paul and Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville.

For more information on Driving Force Energy Co., or to purchase, visit Products can also be purchased by calling (651) 955-2646.

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

(651) 702-0976