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After nearly 50 years in business, Uncle Bob's Popcorn is a Tucson institution

It's a nondescript building near the intersection of Columbus and Speedway boulevards, but don't be fooled by its exterior. Within its walls, there's a special blend of nostalgia and community pride, all wrapped up in shiny bags.

This is where Tucsonans have been purchasing locally made popcorn for years—Uncle Bob's Popcorn.

As the history goes, Uncle Bob had a kiosk at a Food Giant grocery store near First Avenue and Wetmore Road starting in 1963, where he sold popcorn and cotton candy. Bob sold the business to Mr. Miles, a former Hughes Aircraft mechanic. After a few years, Miles' daughter Maryanne took the reins, and the business really flourished. She sold the business in 1986 to a local family. They, in turn, sold the business to its current owners, Valerie and Jim Wright, in 2007.

Walk in the door of Uncle Bob's Popcorn, and it's like you're in a local shop of yesteryear. Valerie and Jim greet many customers by name. An empty chair is in a corner, almost beckoning visitors to sit and talk for a while. Old-fashioned candy jars hold various flavors of popcorn.

"It's a place where we just talk, visit and get to know our customers," says Valerie. "We say we are a cross between the Cheers bar and The Andy Griffith Show—a place where everyone knows your name, but it's very family-oriented. Connecting with the person is the most important thing to us."

In the homey shop, popcorn kernels, popped corn, oils, flavorings and popcorn poppers are sold. Uncle Bob's Popcorn comes in 15 flavors, including blueberry, double-cheese, hot cinnamon and jalapeño.

Community love for Uncle Bob's runs strong.

"It was really part of the fabric of this town," says Valerie.

She recounts that busloads of children stopped by the former location at Grant and Country Club roads for a tour of the factory. Valerie says some of these former kids now bring their grandchildren to the store. While no tours are offered now, she hopes to re-establish them within a year.

So how is the popcorn made? In brief, the kernels come from a family farm in Missouri. The kernels are placed in a popper; from there, the popped corn moves down a conveyor belt into a sifter, where small pieces are removed. To make savory flavors such as cheese and jalapeño, the popcorn is placed in a tumbler. For sweet flavors, a caramelizer is used. Once finished, the popcorn is weighed, placed in bags and sealed.

Voila—a Tucson-made product.

"There are very few things that are truly homegrown that have lasted (here)," says Valerie. "This is something that people are proud of. They come in and can't wait to send it to wherever. It's a uniquely Tucson product, and it's a good product."

She says the popcorn has been shipped around the country, and has even reached troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All of this wouldn't take place without Amanda Sprentz, who has worked at Uncle Bob's for 14 years. When I ask her for some fun popcorn facts, she tells me what makes popcorn pop is the percentage of moisture in the kernel; it needs to be 12.9 percent.

Another interesting fact is that there are at least two Uncle Bobs in Tucson history. There's the popcorn Uncle Bob, and there's the television show Uncle Bob. Bob Love, aka Uncle Bob, hosted a local TV show in the '60s and '70s. Many people think the Uncle Bobs are related somehow. However, Valerie says it was "completely serendipitous." Customers often ask about the TV show. In that vein, she hopes to connect with Bob Love's son to host an event to celebrate both the business and the television show.

Both Jim and Valerie left jobs in corporate America so they could make a difference within the community and give back a little bit. As small-business owners, they embody the real heart of Tucson—friendly people who work hard, love our community and see its positives.

Valerie offers a great description of Tucson, one we can be proud of: "It's a place where you can just be who you are, and not feel like there is any need to meet some standard or display some sort of an image. People don't care what you have, what you wear, what you do. People mostly want to know who you are as a person. ... That's a major 'what's right' here."

More by Irene Messina

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