Pop goes a tradition: county cracks down on free popcorn in hardware stores

Around San Diego County, a hot, salty, buttered controversy has popped up.

Should hardware stores offer free bags of freshly popped popcorn?

While that may look like a warm, welcoming treat, free popcorn is a threat to public health — or so argue county officials. Last month, health inspectors raided La Jolla’s Meanley & Son Hardware, warning that its old-fashioned red popcorn machine is a germy outlaw.

“They explained we didn’t have the proper permits,” said Bob Meanley, whose shop had handed out 30 to 40 bags every day for about 25 years.

To comply with the 1984 California Uniform Retail Food Facility Law, Meanley & Son would need to install a three-basin sink to clean and sterilize the popcorn popper. Also required: regular inspections, just like a restaurant.

Meanley declined and instead rolled the offending machine into storage. Thus ended a tradition he had started 25 years ago.

“I hate to take away something that our customers really like,” said Meanley, whose grandparents founded the hardware store in 1948. “On the other hand, this whole thing has made me more aware of our liability.”

While closely associated with movie theaters, popcorn is also tightly linked to neighborhood purveyors of hammers and screwdrivers. The connection is seen in shops from Cambridge, Mass. (Tags Ace Hardware) to Lakeside (Payton’s True Value Hardware).

“The little kids get a kick out of it,” said Dianne El-Hajj, co-owner of Payton’s, where the free treat has been a staple since 1997. “They come in for the popcorn and dad comes in for the tools.”

The county Department of Environmental Health, for its part, has a long tradition of cracking down on these scofflaws. Three years ago, inspectors cited Encinitas’ Crown Ace Hardware and San Carlos True Value Hardware.

“The Health Department came in,” said San Carlos True Value manager Danielle Matheny, “and told us if we wanted to continue giving away free popcorn and coffee we’d have to install a bigger vent system, a bigger and better sink in the break room — a lot of rules and restrictions they put on us.”

In both Encinitas and San Carlos, the stores dropped the practice. Inspectors so far have ignored Payton’s, but El-Hajj figures it’s just a matter of time.

“I feel sad,” she said, “that some of the old traditions we have become so regulated.”

Read more of this The San Diego Union-Tribune article by Peter Rowe by clicking here.

Photo: Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune