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‘Popping smiles by the batches’

Island Popcorn Barn settles in next to generational family restaurant

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August 10, 2023

WASHINGTON ISLAND – Lenny Sawosko said for him and his family, dreams do come true.

Sawosko is the owner and founder of Island Popcorn Barn (789 Main Road) on Washington Island, which – you guessed it – serves a slew of different specialty popcorn flavors. 

The shop, which opened up a year ago, is located right by Sawosko’s late father’s restaurant – The Albatross Drive-In (777 Main Road), which Sawosko said makes both establishments extra special.

“Forty-seven years ago, my parents started The Albatross Drive-In – hamburgers, ice cream and all that – right next door (to where Island Popcorn Bar is now located),” Sawosko said. 

Last year was the first year Sawosko said he and his sister took over The Albatross after his father’s passing.

Though Sawosko said he hasn’t always been a permanent resident of Washington Island, it’s always been a dream of his and his wife Erika’s.

When the building that now houses Island Popcorn Bar was posted for sale in 2018 – Sawosko said they knew they had to have it.

“We were working on our careers in Chicago – that’s where I was originally from,” he said. “That’s where we raised our family. We bought (the building) in 2018 not knowing what we were going to do with it… our ultimate dream was always to move to Washington Island. But having two careers and family and the whole city life – how do you just cut ties and move?”

Sawosko said it was his daughter who helped seal the deal on the move.

“(It was always our) daughter’s dream to move to the island and get out of the city,” he said. “So, (with her), her fiance and my two grandkids (all on board, we made the decision to move). Having a team coming up here to start something was a huge plus.”

What happened next?
When it came to deciding what to utilize the building for, Sawosko said he wanted to make sure that whatever business the family opened would “make a great complementary business” to The Albatross.

“Generations come to (the drive-in) to enjoy our place… I didn’t want to compete with it,” he said. “But what could we do to enhance our corner? What kind of product is family-oriented that would fit? We did a lot of research. We went to some business classes and kicked around a bunch of ideas.”

Eventually, Sawosko said popcorn piqued the family’s interest.

“With The Alby, we have a good 20-plus employees, and we knew popcorn wouldn’t take that much,” he said. “I can pop it, family can pop it – nothing we’d (need a lot of staff for).”

Another positive aspect to opening a popcorn business, Sawosko said, was the shipping potential of the product. 

“(We wanted) something we’d be able to ship and have an online store, because once fall comes, it’s a ghost town,” he laughed. “You’re not going to get foot traffic coming to you every day – so what can we ship out? We kept coming back to popcorn.”

After the decision was made to focus on popcorn, which Sawosko said happened in 2020, the family started to learn more about popcorn – which included meeting with vendors and companies that supply the necessary equipment.

Funny enough, Sawosko said the previous owner of the building made and sold kettle corn.

“It’s funny how that works out,” he said.

Though Sawosko spent many seasons watching his mother and father run The Albatross, he said he and his wife didn’t have much knowledge on running a business – which made the process “a bit scary, but very exciting.”

In 2022, following months of planning and hard work, Island Popcorn Barn (IPB) officially opened its doors.

Flavors galore
Sawosko said there is no shortage of popcorn flavors to choose from at IPB.

He said the IPB team uses only the finest and freshest ingredients available, and handcrafts each flavor in small batches to ensure quality.

The shop offers 23 different (sweet, salty, spicy, savory and gluten-free) popcorn flavors on its website – Reese’s Peanut Butter Crunch, Blazing Saddles, Door County Cherry, Silly Dilly, Movie Theater Style and Happy Spud, to name a few.

Sawosko said many flavors listed on the website are also available at the store, as are a few in-store-only seasonal options.

Island Popcorn Barn offers a variety of different flavors – from sweet, to savory, to spicy. Photo Courtesy of Island Popcorn Barn

“The No. 1 seller we have is Lenny’s Kettle Corn,” he said. “I make it with a wooden paddle and a giant kettle. Sometimes I do it out front to show people.”

Sawosko said the shop has collaborated with Stone’s Throw Winery, a winery in Baileys Harbor, to provide an off-island pick-up option.

“The owner of Stone’s Throw Winery… came into my store,” he said. “We got to chatting… next thing you know, he says, ‘I want to sell your popcorn (at my winery).’ So, over the winter, the team and I came up with our exclusive, only at Stone’s Throw Winery (popcorn). We call it our ‘Cork and Kernel’ collaboration. We came up with a dulce, which is a sweet turtle with walnuts, an amore and amici. We took popcorn to another level, classed it up and got it its own label.”

Ship, ship hooray
Since tourism declines heavily in the cooler months in Door County, Sawosko said the IPB family focuses more on shipping out their popcorn to keep business coming in during the off-season.

The process to prepare and ship out product starts with a customer placing an order on the website.

During the summer months, Sawosko said the order will be filled within three days.

In the wintertime, he said the popcorn is made specifically for that order, and what’s leftover is sold in the shop.

The package is dropped off at a carrier, such as USPS or FedEx, before taking the trip to the mainland on the Washington Island Ferry and being shipped out.

“It’s cool to say all our popcorn goes on the ferry boats,” Sawosko said. “We haven’t really pushed our online store in the summer because we are so busy in the store, but so far in our first year, we have shipped to more than 30 states (in the U.S., including Hawaii and Alaska) as well as Ireland. So, people are starting to get to know us.”

When tourism slows down greatly on Washington Island in the colder months, IPB offers items for shipping through its website. Photos Courtesy of Island Popcorn Barn

When a customer makes a purchase in a state or country that IPB hasn’t shipped to yet, Sawosko said he writes them a personal thank you note informing them they are the first person to order from that area.

The team also has a map, and puts a pin on the map to mark where popcorn has shipped out to.

1st year vs. 2nd year
The first year of business, Sawosko said, was “incredibly hard” compared to how the second year is going.

“Everybody is more hands on up at The Albatross – I pretty much was the one down here at the popcorn shop,” he said. “I barely had any front staff to work the counter, and then I had to keep everything supplied, making it in the kitchen. Not knowing everything about everything, you just got to jump in and do it – that was challenging. That was eight in the morning till five at night, seven days a week.”

Thankfully, Sawosko said this year, IPB has more staff and he is able to take some time off for himself.

“I have three wonderful ladies that work up front,” he said. “I now have my daughter’s help… and now her fiance is here so he’s helping me in the kitchen. Now I’m able to get out at two in the afternoon if I wanted to go fishing, swimming with the grandkids or living the island life we came up here (for).”

Living the dream
Sawosko said he feels “privileged and blessed in every way” to be able to run IPB on the island adjacent to his late father’s restaurant.

“I’m just overwhelmed,” he said. “It’s a crazy dream I’m living, and I’m loving it. I never want to let the family name down.”

Sawosko said he wanted to build IPB up as good as his parents did with The Albatross.

“I want to learn from my parents’ hard work,” he said. “They care about people, they care about the product, they care about everything that goes into making a business successful. I want to continue to grow and then teach our younger ones and our family that one day that could be theirs as well.”

IPB’s slogan is “Popping smiles by the batches,” something Sawosko said is integral to the business and the family that runs it.

“The business is growing,” he said. “Having family here is unbelievable. Everybody’s all together every day, all day. And it’s something special.”

To check out IPB’s popcorn flavors and hours of operation, head to

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