Older than Oscar® — Part II

125-year-old popcorn machine maker bends, won't break

The FABRICATOR March 2010
March 9, 2010
By: Kate Bachman

While it may seem as though movies and popcorn have always co-existed, the automatic popcorn machine actually was invented by Charles Cretor in 1893—before the first motion picture premiered. A century and a quarter-century later, manufacturer C. Cretors & Company, Chicago, celebrates its anniversary, success, and outright survival—bending and adapting through two world wars, the Great Depression, the advent of automobiles, television, the electronic age, dot.comera, globalization—and motion pictures.

Cretors & Co Stamp of Americana

Figure 2Stamp of Americana. (top right) How many fabricators can say that their products have been featured on a postage stamp? In 1988 the U.S. Post Office featured a 1902 C. Cretors & Co. popcorn cart in its Transportation series.Figure 2 In 1900 Cretors introduced the first horse-drawn popcorn wagon. Charles D. Cretors (pictured) is CEO and Chief Designer.

Editor's Note: This article is part of a two-part series profiling two manufacturers—C. Cretors & Co. and Irwin Seating—that have supplied to the cinema industry, as well as other segments, for more than a century. The companion piece, "Older than Oscar—Century-old stamper seats thousands of movie-goers," is published in the March/April issue of STAMPING Journal®, and inserted into this issue of The FABRICATOR®.

Film lovers and movie-goers watching the 82nd Academy Awards® event this month are sure to see red carpet and golden trophies; low necklines and draping gowns; snap-tight bow ties and dapper tuxedos.

What they won't see is the aroma that wafts throughout nearly every American cinema theater, the behind-the-scenes feature that enhances the movie-viewing experience, that puts the "it's-a-wrap" in going to the movies.


Popcorn and Motion Pictures—a Love Story

It may seem as though movies and popcorn have always gone together—hand-in-box, so to speak. While the process of popping corn is old, the automatic popcorn maker actually was invented by Charles Cretors in 1893, before the first motion picture was shown in a "movie theater" in America in 1896, in New York City. Cretors had created and patented a mobile, steam-powered machine that was faster, more powerful, and capable of popping better-tasting, fluffier popcorn than the hand-operated roaster. Cretors bought a peddler's license and put his new roaster machine on the sidewalk in front of his shop for popping popcorn, as well as to roast peanuts, coffee, and chestnuts.

The first popcorn machines were mounted on the manually transported wagon wheel carts that have become the darling of postage stamps, the icon of turn-of-the century nostalgia, and inspiration for reality TV episodes (see Figures 1, 2, and 3).

World's Fair Premiere. Charles Cretors took his invention to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition at the Midway of Chicago and introduced his new mobile, steam-powered popcorn wagon to the world. It was a blockbuster.

In 1900 Cretors introduced the Special—the first large, horse-drawn popcorn wagon (see Figure 2).

Electrified. About this time, electricity was becoming the power source of the future. Charles Cretors introduced the first electric motor-powered popcorn machine in 1917. Its Underwriters Laboratories (UL) number is one of the oldest active numbers for a machine driven by an electric motor.

Cretors sold his mobile concession carts to vendors, who parked them outside cinema houses to take advantage of the movie-crowd traffic. The popcorn vendors did well. At first theater owners tried to chase the vendors away, but eventually the owners recognized an opportunity and brought the popcorn machines inside the theaters as stationary concessions.

Cretors Popcorn Cart

Figure 3A few years ago the History Channel ran a series called "Big" that featured the construction of commonly known products scaled many times their actual size. One episode featured the making of a turn-of-the-century Cretors popcorn cart, scaled four times. Charles D. Cretors was asked to be one of the fabricators/builders and participated in the episode.

The rest is concession history.

A century and a quarter later, C. Cretors & Co., Chicago, celebrates the business's anniversary, success, and outright survival, having outlasted and sustained through the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire; the financial panic of 1893; admittance of states to the Union; Pullman strikes; the 1918 influenza epidemic; two world wars and other wars; the Great Depression and subsequent economic recessions; and technological breakthroughs such as electricity, motion pictures, flight, automobiles, television, electronics, the Internet, and globalization.

Bending and Fabricating

Sizes and capacities range from a 4-oz. batch machine to continuous processing machines producing thousands of pounds of popcorn per hour. Customization is standard for Cretors, so manufacturing processes and components vary from model to model and version to version.

But press brake bending, laser cutting, drilling, milling, sawing, and welding play a role in the manufacture of all the machines. The popcorn machine-maker bends the frame components, enclosure panels, and other parts in material thicknesses from 20 gauge to 0.25 in. on a press brake (see The Making of a Popcorn Machine).

Tonnage varies depending on the popcorn machine model and component, how wide the metal is, and how big the dies are, said Charles D. Cretors, CEO and chief designer.

Bending and Adapting, Transitioning

Most companies of all types and sizes fail within 20 years of their founding; fewer than 30 percent of family-owned companies survive into the second generation; barely 10 percent make it to the third; and only 4 percent survive to the fourth generation, according to Family Business magazine. C. Cretors & Co. is now in the hands of its fifth generation. Andrew Cretors became company president in 2006; his sister, Beth Cretors, is marketing communications manager; and brother, Bud Cretors, is quality control engineer.

Every successful, long-running, epic business knows it must continue to adapt and bend with changing tastes to survive and thrive.

Cretors' Longevity Strategies

1. Grow with your customers. As popcorn's popularity grew, the demand for it began to appear in concessions other than in cinemas, such as sporting arenas and retailer snack counters. C. Cretors & Co. manufactures large-scale floor poppers, such as the Mach 5, forcommercial use by theaters, arenas, and convenience stores. The company also manufactures small-scale poppers for special-occasion and home-theater use.

When consumers began wanting to be able to eat popcorn without having to attend a movie or sporting event to do so, the home market was born. In 1967 Cretors patented and introduced a continuous production line, called Flo-Thru®, featuring a hot-air fluidized-bed oven for high-volume popcorn production. Today Flo-Thru machines also include continuous wet popping, savory coating or caramel coating, and automated or batch wet-popping systems for savory or sweet popcorn.

Production lines can vary in capacities from 80 lbs. per hour to 5,000 lbs. per hour (see Figure 4). These industrial-scale popcorn machines are used by manufacturers such as Frito-Lay and Jays to produce prepopped popcorn sold in grocery stores.

industrial hot-air fluidized-bed machine

Figure 4This industrial hot-air fluidized-bed machine, which pops hundreds of pounds of popcorn per hour on a continuous production line, is sold to major snack producers for the grocery store market.

2. Expand product offerings. The company has adapted some production lines to produce foods other than popcorn, such as snack foods, cereals, and specialty products. The model 5000 puffer expands and toasts 5,000 lbs. of cereal per hour. C. Cretors also manufactures hot dog grills, cotton candy-making machines, ice and food shavers, warmers, dispensing systems, and other concession equipment.

3. Expand customer market geographically—export. Nearly half of the company's products are sold outside of the U.S. "We're about 40 to 50 percent export," said Beth Cretors.

The company's popcorn machinery is sold in 40 countries, in locations as far-flung as South Africa, Russia, Romania, England, Saudia Arabia, and Japan. "We literally go all over the world," Beth Cretors said.

Some markets have opened up because popcorn is a new food in some countries, Beth Cretors said. "Export has always been there for us, but it's just really exploded the last few years. It's interesting, because some flavors do great over there that we'd never want to try. Some have really different savory-type flavors," she added.

Manufacturing for export brings its own challenges.

To satisfy the various voltage requirements of so many different countries, C. Cretors must vary the wiring to meet each country's needs. Machines being shipped to Europe, for example, are wired to use 240/380/50-Hz power. The machines' packaging sometimes must be inspected before they are shipped to validate that they actually are popcorn machines. "Inspectors want to come in and see it run first," Charles D. Cretors said. "There used to be a problem when you were selling things, particularly to Russia, Africa, and Third World countries, because people were trying to get money out of those countries illegally. They would order something, an American company would ship them a container full of rocks, and then they would ship out $200,000 cash on that LC.

"Well, now their governments want to make sure that they are actually buying something, so now there's an inspection procedure," he said. This inspection is not a common occurrence, but it has happened every few years, he added.

4. Reduce lead-times by fabricating in-house and The company has adapted its outsourcing-to-in-house manufacturing strategies ratio as changes have required it.

"We used to buy our extrusions formed-out and welded into frames. It got to be very expensive, and our lead-times had gone from 11/2 months to six months," Charles D. Cretors said. "The original supplier that had been extruding the metal also had formed it, brushed it, anodized it, fabricated it—he'd do everything to it. Then he started jobbing everything out except extruding the metal. By the time we got it, there was a six-month lead-time.

"So now we cut these frames, bend them, punch them, deburr them, and make them ourselves. Once we get our material in four or five weeks—our lead-time is in hours."

5. Reduce costs by jobbing out. Conversely, when it makes sense to do so from a financial and time standpoint, the company outsources the fabricating of some components, such as castings.

Andrew Cretors

Figure 5President Andrew Cretors sees the company's future direction anchored on its founding principles.

6. Practice lean. The company has embraced lean manufacturing concepts as a way to handle short runs and customization. Dennis Botts, plant manager, said the material is staged and goes directly from operation to operation without being stored on the floor. "We don't leave anything lying around. If it's cut, we're going to take it right to the mill and right out the door. We don't want anything sitting around for months or weeks. The guys who are building smaller machines are completely encircled by the parts they need to make the machine."

7. Increase productivity with upgraded equipment. Over time C. Cretors & Co. has been transitioning its manual operations to automated and CNC, Botts explained. "For example, when I started over 20 years ago, there were nine people in this department. With four people, we're able to produce four or five times more than we used to then because we upgraded the machines, brought in new equipment, or rebuilt equipment. All the turrets on every manual machine have been rebuilt. The Bridgeports are new, a milling machine has been totally rebuilt, and a lot of our drill presses are new."

8. Buy out your competitors. In the company's early years, an employee developed a hot-air popping machine. He approached the founder, Charles Cretors, with his concept to see if he would manufacture it. Because C. Cretors & Co.'s patent was based on popping in hot oil, Charles Cretors turned the employee down, who left and started his own company. Not to be upstaged, once Charles D. Cretors presided over the company, he had a chance to buy out another company making batch air-popping equipment. Cretors now sells this type of machine to specialty gourmet popcorn retailers like Garrett.

9. Build machines that stand the test of time. Many of the company's machines are submitted for service and rebuilds. Some are as old as 40 years and still running. "We'll overhaul it, and it will cost them about a third of the price of a new one," Charles D. Cretors said. "Ours is the only machinery on the market that's worth fixing."

Fifth Generation Takes the Lead

Each generation of C. Cretors & Co. presidents has made its own contribution. The fifth-generation's president, Andrew Cretors, sees the company's future direction anchored on the company's founding principles (see Figure 5).

"C. Cretors & Co. has endured some of the country's darkest hours. We will continue to operate on the values that have gotten us through them—innovation, responsiveness, value, and integrity—doing the right thing," he said.

Andrew Cretors said key to the company's success is simply listening to the customer, and fostering a plant environment that encourages innovation, and at which the employees, whom he called "dedicated," enjoy working. "The idea for our currently best-selling machine, the Mach 5, came from the shop floor," he said.

"We continue to compete with companies in countries that don't pay a living wage—don't pay for safety equipment. They're about profit at any cost. People ask us why we don't set up our manufacturing in China.

"We're an American company," he said. "We want to continue to make popcorn machines in the U.S.

"We take great pride in the machines we design and build," Andrew Cretors added.

"After all, at the end of the day, it's our name on the machines."

How Popcorn Pops

"When you pop popcorn, what happens is you're heating the kernel, which is a pressure vessel. By the time the pressure gets to about 130 PSI internally, the kernel is going to rupture. So you have to heat it up slowly enough so that it's cooked all the way through before it explodes. If you heat it too fast, it gets real tough in the center. If you heat it too slowly, all the steam leaks out the bottom and it never does pop. And when it blows, all the moisture goes to a vapor phase. As the steam leaks out of the holes in the corn in a process called adiabatic cooling, it's like what happens when you go up to a higher altitude. It gets colder. This comes down from 130 PSI to atmospheric pressure. As the corn cools and loses all that energy, it is stretched-out soft starch, and it's stiff in this expanded form."— Charles D. Cretors

Click to read The Making of a Cretors Popcorn Machine

Kate Bachman

Kate Bachman

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1302

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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