Best known for its addictive (and healthy) popcorn, Little Lad’s Bakery aims to change the way America snacks.
By Meadow Rue Merrill
Photographed by Jason P. Smith
[M]ore than 700 men and women punch the clock at some of northern New England’s most robust manufacturing plants on the banks of the Piscataquis River in the central Maine town of Guilford. They make everything from wooden cigar tips, macramé beads, and golf tees to upholstery, curtains, and blankets. But in his 13 years as town manager, Tom Goulette has never seen anything quite like the excitement being generated by the sprawling, old American Pride wood factory a couple miles downriver from downtown.
“Everybody’s kind of, like, ‘What is going on?’” says Goulette, who grew up packing eggs for his father at the local IGA. “We can’t wait for them to open and get going.”
Neither can Larry Fleming, owner of the dilapidated 60,000-square-foot plant that is causing the buzz. In the cavernous jumble of drafty halls and leaky roofs, the maker of Little Lad’s addictively flavorful popcorn hopes to change the way America snacks.
“For me, the important part is having something that is good for you that can compete with anything out there,” says Fleming, sitting in an upper office of his new factory. “I think we have products that will sell far more than our popcorn does, but we can’t make them in the space we’re in.”
Demand is so high and space so limited at the bakery’s Corinth building, 30 minutes north, that Fleming, his wife Maria, and their dozen employees have resorted to storing bags of popcorn in trailers before trucking it to grocery and specialty-food stores throughout New England. The Guilford factory will give the all-natural, vegan food company 10 times more space.
While many know Little Lad’s for its popcorn, the bakery makes 200 other products, from B vitamin-loaded Brain-ola (tagline: “Grow your mind. Not your behind!”) and Cheese-Izn’t crackers to creamy nut butters and dairy-free Nice Cream. It’s even developing fish-free sushi.
Dressed in a chamois shirt and jeans, the silver-haired, 66-year-old Fleming looks every part the rugged cowboy who grew up on a cattle ranch in eastern Washington and rode a horse five miles to get the mail. While attending college on a football scholarship in the 1960s, he came upon the religious writings of several vegans and gave up meat. He also joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church, whose members abstain from some kinds of meat.
Wanting to make it easier for others to do the same, Fleming opened a string of vegan cafes, including an 80-seat restaurant on Wall Street, one block from Broadway. The law firm that rented him the space was concerned he wouldn’t have any customers, but when some of the lawyers stopped by a few months later, Fleming had to tell them, “I’d love to give you lunch, but there is no place to sit down.”
Over two decades, Fleming opened 35 Country Life vegan restaurants in cities such as London, Paris, and Los Angeles, capturing the attention of the New York Times and Esquire. Even an editor at food-fussy Gourmet praised the cuisine. Fleming also taught people to cook the same healthy fare found in his restaurants.
In the mid-1990s, he was invited by a family friend to help expand a vegan bakery in midcoast Maine. Maria Hansen was selling bread from a storefront on Route 1 in Woolwich. Fleming moved in with her parents in the western Maine town of Poland and expanded the bakery to include soups and sandwiches. A year later, he and Maria married.
Fleming began popping corn to serve with lunch. It was such a hit that diners were soon asking to take it home. Each hand-popped batch was heavily seasoned with herbs and stuffed in a clear plastic bread bag sealed with a twist-tie. “It just started taking over,” Fleming says. And it hasn’t stopped.
After moving to Corinth in 2000, the Flemings and their hard-working staff turned out greater quantities of whole-grain breads, fresh-fruit tarts, almond butters, and other vegan goodies along with their popcorn to supply stores and restaurants. They also run two cafes, one in the Lower East Side of New York City and a low-key vegan buffet on Congress Street in Portland, where $4.99 gets you a paper plate full of aromatic veggies and bean-based casseroles. “All we want to do is give people better food to eat,” says Fleming.
Fans of Little Lad’s herbal popcorn regularly call the bakery for tips on how to make their own, but the recipe is a closely guarded secret. Last summer, the Washington Post even published a knock-off formula, but Fleming isn’t worried. “The way that we make popcorn is so labor intensive that most people are not going to try and duplicate it,” he says. “We aren’t about trying to make the last penny. We spend as much on seasonings as we do on the popcorn, because we care about making a good product.”
Little Lad’s currently pops more than 2,500 pounds of non-GMO kernels in six varieties each week — a fraction of what the Flemings expect to produce in their new facility. “With more space, we can put out more things,” said Fleming, whose family moved into their apartment in the new building early last winter. By summer, they expect to operate from Guilford full time with their home-schooled children pitching in.
For Town Manager Goulette, that day can’t come soon enough. Not only will the new factory boost the town’s long manufacturing tradition and bring jobs, it also comes with a perk. “The kids come by the office and bring me something to eat every once in a while,” Goulette says. His favorite? Little Lad’s apple turnover, which he declares “every bit as good” as the competition. Better, in fact: “Little Lad’s have more fruit in them.”