Supplying the East Coast with Herbal Corn takes long hours, 13 team members, four commercial popping machines and roughly 52 tons of popcorn kernels a year.

It’s a job the vegan company Little Lad’s has quietly carried out in rural Maine for 25 years.

For 25 years, Little Lad’s has manufactured popcorn and other vegan foods in rural Maine. Herbal Corn remains its most popular product. Photo by Avery Yale Kamila

Once every two weeks, distributor Downeast Food unloads two tons of popcorn kernels at Little Lad’s production facility in Corinth, near Bangor. The busiest days at Little Lad’s span 12 hours with three shifts working the poppers nonstop at the company’s headquarters and food production space inside a 100-year-old former village store on Main Street.

Five days a week, the 13-person crew transforms the kernels into bags and bags of the company’s signature Herbal Corn, along with BBQ, Garlic Buttah, Lemon Herbal, Sea Veggie and Snacker Jacks, the lone sweet variety. But Herbal Corn remains the company’s top seller, by far, founder and owner Maria Fleming said.

In 1995, Little Lad’s opened for business as a cafe and bakery on Route 1 in Woolwich, and it was there that its famous popcorn was developed as an alternative to corn chips. The company began making its Herbal Corn and many other food products by hand in Corinth in 1999, after relocating from its home in Woolwich. Over the years, Little Lad’s evolved — among other changes, the cafes are gone now — but its roots remain in that first Woolwich restaurant and its food.

Karen D’Andrea of Scarborough remembers going to the Woolwich Little Lad’s soon after it opened. “It was bold to have a veg restaurant back then and certainly bold in Maine,” she said.

Back in the day, the cafe’s best-known Maine location was its Exchange Street restaurant in Portland’s Old Port, which opened in a basement space in 1997. Jack Phoenix of Long Island worked there and recalls that the all-you-can-eat vegan buffet cost just $1.99. Vegetarian celebrity chef and Maine resident Toni Fiore often ate there in the late 1990s, as did many office workers and young people. The cafe’s Herbal Corn, she said, influenced her own approach to popcorn, inspiring her to create her own topping with dried herbs, olive oil and nutritional yeast.

HERBAL ALLURE

For decades, the Herbal Corn seasoning mix has been the subject of speculation and debate in the food world. Many blogs and websites offer recipes that mimic it. Even The Washington Post took hold of a popcorn popper and a spice rack in 2013 and attempted to recreate the seasoning mix. The Post’s food and dining editor Joe Yonan admitted that on past visits to Maine he would buy Little Lad’s popcorn and it “would barely make it to the car, let alone home before the contents were consumed.”

Yonan’s recipe calls for nutritional yeast, oregano, dill, thyme, crushed red pepper flakes and sea salt.

As the decades ticked by, Little Lad’s has aged into an iconic Maine business.

When President Barack Obama and his family vacationed on Mount Desert Island in 2010, the First Family was given an assortment of Maine gifts by then Gov. John Baldacci, among them Little Lad’s Herbal Corn. Ganda Suthivarakom, writing for Sauver magazine in 2013, called Herbal Corn “the umami snack I just can’t quit.” And in 2018, Pat Callahan, host of NewCenter Maine’s TV show 207, described Little Lad’s as “one of Maine’s most interesting food companies.”

Apparently, these accolades have not gone to Fleming’s head. Asked what was planned for this year’s 25th anniversary, she said, “Quite frankly, nothing at all,” an answer that perfectly illustrates the company’s down-to-earth, no-frills style. The same can be said for the Little Lad’s factory, which lacks a sign, and its barebones logo, which is the company name inside a black box.

Rather than promotion, Fleming prefers to focus on customer service and product development.

“People have come to know us as an old-fashioned, honest company,” she said during a recent phone interview. That honesty is reflected in the company’s “enjoy the taste or your money back” guarantee, and Fleming’s drive to resolve any complaints.

These days, many customers live out of state. The Obamas aren’t the only visitors who’ve tried Herbal Corn while visiting Maine, and online orders for the popcorn come from across the country. Because shipping rates are based on size not weight, popcorn is expensive to mail order. The solution is Little Lad’s newest product: A spice jar filled with the Herbal Corn seasoning mix.

The popcorn, and Little Lad’s more than 100 other plant-based foods including fruit tarts, Belgian toaster waffles and frozen Nice Cream, are sold throughout Maine, across the Northeast and as far south as Raleigh, North Carolina. Its nonperishable items can be purchased online, too.

In 2011, the company acquired a former golf tee factory in Guilford with plans to expand into the larger space. But those plans were dropped when Fleming and her husband, Larry Fleming, divorced in 2016. He received the Guilford factory in the split, and she retained Little Lad’s.

“The Guilford expansion wasn’t to be,” Fleming says today.

BAKERY BEGINNINGS

Fleming, a lifelong vegetarian who became vegan when she met her former husband, had wanted to own a bakery since she was a teenager.

“I started the bakery myself when I was 21,” said Fleming, who grew up in Poland Springs, where her dad practiced medicine and both of her parents were also lifelong vegetarians. “I’d been operating Little Lad’s for a few months before I met my husband.”

Little Lad’s Maria Fleming, second from left, with four of her five children. Photo courtesy of Maria Fleming

Before they met, Larry Fleming had run an international group of vegetarian restaurants called Country Life. The New York Times wrote about the group’s Paris restaurant in 1988, calling it the city’s “largest and most lavish” vegetarian restaurant where “customers help themselves at buffet tables to all they can eat of such fare as lentil and millet salads, shredded raw zucchini and meatless lasagna with cashew gravy, for 48 francs (about $8).”

According to DownEast magazine, Larry Fleming ultimately opened 35 Country Life restaurants. Likewise, Little Lad’s began to expand. It opened its Portland cafe (first on Exchange Street, later Congress Street). In 2006, it opened a cafe near Wall Street in New York City. Both featured low prices; the AM New York Metro newspaper reported in 2008 that the New York Little Lad’s $3.99 buffet attracts “about 400 customers daily” with “spicy corn chowder, green salad, Jamaican-style black beans, flavored brown rice and potatoes au gratin.”

Little Lad’s encouraged others to franchise the cafe. At one time there were Little Lad’s franchises in Lewiston, Bangor, Brunswick, Skowhegan, Manchester and Presque Isle. It didn’t last.

“We were producing food in one central kitchen (in Maine) and distributing to our franchises,” Fleming said. “It was a huge commitment (in time for the owners) and each one did not last very long, except the ones we owned ourselves.”

The New York restaurant closed in 2012, and the Portland restaurant followed suit in 2015. Now, Little Lad’s focuses on its wholesale business. How has the pandemic affected sales? At first, they “went up because everyone was stockpiling everything,” Fleming said. But as the crisis has worn on, sales have dipped, she thinks because some smaller health food stores have temporarily closed, and larger stores have limited hours and customers.

“We’ve buckled down and tried to keep costs at a minimum and keep everyone working,” Fleming said. “We’ve been using the time to come up with new products.”

One of the latest is a line of frozen savory vegan hand pies, in varieties including spinach quiche and chick-n vegetable.

Like a handful of national brands, including the Kellogg Company and Loma Linda foods, Little Lad’s was influenced by the Seventh-day Adventist church, which has long worked to make vegetarian food more accessible. Fleming is a member of the church, a worldwide denomination founded by Maine native Ellen G. White, who was a vegetarian. Today the church continues to promote meat-free eating.

When asked why Little Lad’s has had such staying power in a challenging business, Fleming again displays her humility and her Maine values.

“I’ve tried to be honest and to treat people right,” she said. “It’s not because of my amazing talent, skill or intellect. We try to take care of the world around us and do something that helps others. I think that’s why we’re still here. We still have work to do.”

And legions of fans still clamoring for bagfuls of Herbal Corn.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at

[email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

Twitter:AveryYaleKamila


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under:

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.