Kinepolis is the Flemish equivalent of Pathé, the major cinema chain (and film production and distribution company) in France. The key difference is that Kinepolis has a secret in each of its basements: a baker who singlehandedly pops pounds of popcorn every day with the help of a secret recipe and a gigantic popcorn machine. The result is so delicious that 99 percent of Belgian moviegoers decide to get a family-sized bucket of popcorn. The first thing you see when entering a Belgium cinema is an enormous wall filled with containers of sweet and salty popcorn of various sizes.
This April, Kinepolis initiated a test project that would make these popcorn poppers obsolete. "For the first time the popcorn will come from our branches in Bruges, Kortrijk, and Ostend — not from one of our own bakeries, but from a factory," says Emmy Deneckere of Kinepolis Bruges. "We attempted to use manufactured popcorn a while ago like the Dutch, but it tasted too stale. Now we found a factory that will use our recipe, and delivers the popcorn vacuum-sealed the same way we do now. Until now we haven't had any complaints from our clients."
According to Deneckere, this is incredibly good news: "The bakers have an awful job. For hours, they stand alone in a deserted corner of the building that has space for the machine, and after their shift they still have to spend two hours cleaning it."
When I worked in the cinema as a student, the popcorn basement — which was essentially a tiny corner of hell — was the place hostesses would go to sneakily chill during their shift. Everyone knew that Mohammed would be making popcorn while drowning away his sorrows with Arab music, and he was always up for a game of who-can-carry-the-most-bags-to-storage. Because it's currently looking like this era will end, and because popcorn poppers deserve a moment in the spotlight, we decided to visit the last few poppers of Belgium.
SIMON (24), Gent
Simon: Yeah, I've been doing this job twice a week for the last four years at Kinepolis. I spend one day as a baker and one as a host. During holiday periods it's possible that I'll be scheduled to make popcorn every day.
Since you've been doing this for the last four years, you must consider this a chill student job. It's quite ideal for me. I can go to the movies for free! And I also love food. This tiny room is about the only place where you can be involved with cooking, even though it's in a severely simplified way. A lot of people consider its simplicity boring, but I don't. I listen to music or an audio book, and if I'm busy at school I do some homework here.
You have time for that here? Everyone that works here has a different system. During my first half hour, I do a lot of preparatory work, like setting up bags of corn and filling out expiration date labels. This way I have nothing to do during the three to four minutes the popcorn is popping, and will have plenty of time to read articles for my thesis or to re-read exam materials. It doesn't seem like a lot of time, but on normal workdays we pop 30 to 50 bags. Thirty times three minutes already adds up to an hour and a half. During busy days, like Christmas break, this easily goes up to 70 bags. You do the math!
What was your worst workday ever? The days I had a hangover and had to pop a surprisingly large number of bags. Surviving a pounding headache in a room hotter than 30 degrees Celsius while hanging over a basin of salty popcorn makes you dehydrate even more. Not a pleasant feeling. On days like that, the three to four minutes of waiting time seems to go by slower, as well. That'll make anyone hate his or her day.
And your happiest workday? Happy is a big word. I did feel content the day I singlehandedly popped 101 bags of popcorn. In the logbook, you can go back to 2013 and nobody ever popped that much in one shift. Because of that, I hold the record: the popcorn king! It also gave me a kind of heroic feeling. Like, if I wouldn't have been there that day, people wouldn't have had popcorn during their movie visit.
What are some of the most exciting things that have happened in the Ghent popcorn basement? No girls ever came over for hot fun visits, and no baker was caught taking popcorn home. I have no idea. There are endless possibilities, but in reality nothing exciting ever happens. One time there was a dude who forgot to turn on the exhaust hood, and after a few hours there was a lot of smoke in the popcorn room. The entire building smelled like popcorn. This was quite dangerous — hence exciting?
How will you look back at this job? I think the smell and taste of fresh popcorn will always stay with me. If you open a supermarket bag of popcorn, it smells different and often tastes like cardboard. I really enjoy the notion of making popcorn at the cinemas. If popcorn comes from a manufacturer, there always is a loss of freshness and quality, I find. People that come here pay a lot of money for their popcorn, so I feel they should be getting a good product. I mean, if you go to a restaurant you don't want your meat to come from the supermarket, right?
Lastly, I knew this kid who could carry eight bags of popcorn. How many can you carry? Wow, I can carry six. Eight? What a legend! I'll have to try.
CAROLINE (31), Brussels
Hey Caroline! How long have you been doing this job? Caroline: Seven years. During quiet times I occasionally also help the cleaning team, but I predominantly make popcorn.
Do you have friends that want you to bring them free popcorn? Yes, but then I buy them a bag the size of a garbage bag. Last week I bought two of them for a birthday party. For employees it's not expensive, and it fills up about thirty people.
It can get quite boring being by yourself in the basement. How do you entertain yourself? I listen to the radio really loud! It can get boring because you always do the same, but students, colleagues, and managers come and chat, so that's cool.
Do you guys have any stories of bakers that have made a name for themselves by breaking a record, or doing things they weren't supposed to do? No. We do have a student that plays heavy metal quite loudly, and without a headset. It's quite a hellish hullabaloo. It drives the cleaning team absolutely mad.
You do this work full-time. Do students that do this job one day a week sometimes bother you? My worst shift ever was when I just came back after having been sick for a long time. A student had taken over my shift, and I have never seen the basement so filthy. There was popcorn everywhere, and the machine looked revolting. I had to spend three hours cleaning before I could start baking.
Did you ever make a stupid mistake? Every now and then I have burnt a load of popcorn, because of something like forgetting to add oil to the machine.
What will you miss most? The vibe. Basically only young people work here. Therefore managers don't act all hoity-toity. We just have fun.
TIM (29), Ghent
How long have you been baking popcorn? Tim: I've been at Kinepolis for eight years now, of which I spent three years as a baker — every Tuesday and Wednesday.
Be honest: how much popcorn have you stashed in your mouth during your career? Zero. I hate popcorn. The smell of it is cemented in my nostrils. I really don't understand how Belgian folks can eat so much of it. You're basically eating air with sugar, and it makes you even hungrier. Perhaps that's why I'm such a good employee, because I don't eat half of it.
What's it like standing alone in this basement all day? It's tiring — standing up straight all day, having to reach your daily target, waiting until the popcorn is ready every time, having nobody to talk to, and profusely sweating during summer. The only reason I manage is because I make sure I'm continuously busy; time flies by much quicker then. For example, while the popcorn pops, I fill out the stickers, tie up the cooled off bags, stack bags, or wipe up spilled popcorn. This way I have less work at the end of my shift, and don't have to scrub a sticky floor.
Your popcorn basement is incredibly organized! Stacking correctly is incredibly important to ensure the place doesn't get messy. I start in a corner and continue going through the room. During Christmas break we have to bake so much that this room is completely filled and we have to continue working in the kitchen. Before I used to save stacking until the end of my shift, but in all reality it's asking for trouble. After a while it becomes dragging rather than carrying.
What has been your biggest slip-up so far? One day I put water in the kettles without turning the machine off. They were completely burnt and I had to scrub them for hours. Another beginner mistake is not rolling up the bag enough before hanging them on the popcorn machine, which makes all the popcorn fall on the floor. You must roll up the edges pretty far — that's the trick.
This article originally appeared in Dutch language on MUNCHIES NL in June 2016.