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MUSCATINE — From farmers market to storefront, a sweet and savory treat has landed in downtown Muscatine.

Pearl City Popcorn opened June 20 at 119 Chestnut St. offering varieties of gourmet popcorn and ice cream. Owners Shiloe and Mike Hillman wanted to bring something different downtown. With enthusiasm, tenacity, stick-to-itiveness and grit, the couple is working to bring their small business dreams to life.

"There are some days where I'm just like, 'what am I doing?' but I'm enjoying it," Shiloe said. "I'm tired, but I'm enjoying it."

But don't come in looking for plain-old buttered popcorn.

"No, we don't do that here," she said.

So far, available gourmet flavors are kettle, cheese, caramel, jalapeño cheese, and Windy City cheese and caramel mix, named for the famous Chicago-style blend.

"I don't want to be good at everything," she said like some other popcorn businesses. "I want to be really good at about 15 flavors." 

Sweet green chili will be coming soon, she said, and was inspired by Mike's family who are from New Mexico.

"It is phenomenal," she said. "We want to have unique flavors."

Savory varieties are $3.50-$4.75 for 4 ounces and $5-$6 for 8 ounces, with candy flavors at $3.50 for 2 ounces, $6 for 4 ounces and $11 for 8 ounces. Shiloe said the production of the sweet popcorn is more involved to explain the discrepancy. Even though popcorn may be made at home for less, quality, taste and creativity of flavor make Pearl City Popcorn unique, which is reflected in the price.

"We use top-quality ingredients," she said. "This isn't your sprinkle-on cheese powder. We use a cheese sauce so it's creamy and it melts in your mouth." Caramel corn at home is a nightmare, she said, and using a kettle at home is "darn near impossible."

"You can't make everybody happy," she said about reviews. "I take it so personally because I put everything into this, but that's OK. I have more good than bad."

The Hillman's started selling popcorn at the Muscatine Area Farmers Market in 2017 and named it Pearl City as an homage to Muscatine's Pearl Button Capital history. Shiloe said Muscatine, where Mike grew up, is home to the family of four who have lived in the area on and off for 20 years. Shiloe is a respiratory therapist and said she was happy to work for "the Man" because of the stability, but Mike, an engineer, always wanted to own his own business. Shiloe's mother and step-father Vicky Haynes and Dan Morrell owned and operated LeClaire Kettle Corn Company, just east of the Iowa Quad-Cities.

"We had been toying with the idea because we saw how successful it was," she said.

When Shiloe's parents retired and sold the business in 2016, the couple inherited a sorter and kettle lovingly known as "Old Nasty." The kettle didn't get it's name from being dirty or gross, but from the molten, sticky kernels that would fly from it on occasion. Shiloe compared the feeling of getting hit to a fiery burn.

"Everybody's gotten napalmed at one time or another," she said.

After getting the equipment, Shiloe said Morrell suggested they start their own popcorn business. The Hillman's were vendors at flea markets, arts and crafts fairs and events put on by local businesses. Shiloe said their best-selling event is the Red, White and Boom! Fourth of July celebration in Rock Island. She said they will continue to travel to large community events and shops such as R7 Reclaimed in Grandview to support local business owners, but all of the traveling, unpacking the trailer, seasonal limitations and challenges from operating out of their home led to the search for a permanent location. She said the location, painted yellow, is "bright and cheery, what I always envisioned."

The Hillman's did not apply for a forgivable loan with the city, Shiloe said, because the 5-year commitment was "intimidating."

"I don't know what's going to happen in five years," she said, "and I didn't want to have to pay that back if I didn't make it." 

She said she was aware of limited parking in the area and has some concern, but feels the business will be able to capitalize on foot traffic. Tables will be installed this week for customers to stay awhile.

"Everybody said we need ice cream down here," she said and the business obliged.

Pearl City Popcorn serves ice cream from North Liberty-based Heyn's. Flavors are blueberry cheesecake, coconut chip, Monster Mash, mint chip, butter pecan, apple pie, brownie batter and strawberry sorbet, a dairy-free, gluten-free option.

"I want to keep it as local as I can to support those local businesses," she said.

Even though the Hillman's two children thought their mother would be home more since opening the business, they love both ice cream and popcorn.

"They've been really good sports about it," Shiloe said.

After getting settled, she said she's looking forward to working with the Greater Muscatine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and becoming a member to help support downtown business.

"There's a lot of love that goes into it," she said. "It's my third kid. It's my baby. I take a lot of pride in my product and my business and the image. The work is not for the faint of heart. I'm curious to see what happens in the long run."

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