De J. Lozada

When artistic inspiration strikes, some write, some paint, some perform. De J. Lozada makes popcorn. Nothing less than the muse of kernels struck Lozada when she dreamed up and perfected nearly all 14 of the unique varieties for her company, Soul Popped, in the course of a single week. They came to her in a series of flashes—flavors unlike anything else on the popcorn aisle: chicken ’n waffles, nana (banana) pudding, sweet potato soufflé, Auntie’s best pecan pie, red velvet cake, buttered corn off the cob and others.

As she pulls out samples in a conference room at Soul Popped’s marketing firm, she lists their flavor profiles like a wine sommelier. Big Momma’s fried chicken: “This one is important to smell before tasting,” she says. Austin smoke BBQ: “You get a tangy smoky in the front end, and on the back end you get a sweet and spicy.” Chicken ’n waffles: “The maple syrup sneaks up on you.” Chocolate-covered strawberries: “It tastes like Cap’n Crunch.”

Lozada is proprietary about how she gets the flavors just right (“All I’ll say is a European-grade dehydrator’s involved”), but she makes no secret that the ingredients come from real, preservative-free, organic-when-possible food—not chemicals. Everything tastes about as close as you can get to an actual soul-food dish, minus many of the health risks. That’s a real boon for health-conscious, soul-food aficionados like Lozada, who only cooks the decadent stuff on Thanksgiving and Christmas. “I never wanted my kids eating the bad things usually associated with soul food…‘the more lard, the better’ mentality.” She waves a napkin that’s just held a pile of heavenly macaroni & cheese popcorn. Not a trace of grease. “Soul Popped proves that there’s a healthier way to experience soul food,” she says.

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Lozada learned the ways of soul food from her grandmother, who took her in after she wound up homeless for a few months in middle school when her parents were no longer in the picture. It’s a stretch to say her grandmother taught her how to cook (“When Big Momma’s in the kitchen, you don’t go in the kitchen,” says Lozada), but she picked up a lot by watching. In the years that followed, Lozada left small-town North Carolina for college and graduate school; served as a public affairs officer for the U.S. Department of Defense in Germany; started her own communications company in Colorado; and worked in education advocacy with a state agency in Austin. Then she got divorced, and after that, her switch to a new job with a different state agency didn’t work out. She found herself without a job and wondering how she could pay her mortgage, let alone college tuition for her two sons. In the midst of a long cry about it all, a voice in her head told her, “Get up and go make your popcorn.”

Rather than rationalize the voice away, she took its advice. She’d always made her own popcorn (“None of that microwaveable stuff!”), but using the soul-food ingredients she’d been raised on took things to a whole new level. “Soul food is about putting part of you into the food, and that's what makes this popcorn what it is,” she says. “I don’t go into my kitchen if I’m not in a good space spiritually. It comes out in the food. You can taste it.”

Within a few months of rolling out Soul Popped at the Texas Farmers Markets at Lakeline and Mueller last September, Lozada got calls of interest from Walmart, Williams Sonoma and—even more unexpectedly—musicians Snoop Dogg, Grandmaster Flash and 2 Chainz. Not long after that, Soul Popped became the youngest company invited to join the SKU consumer product training program. And soon, Soul Popped will be selling on Amazon, with a logo update from a classic soul sister to a gender-neutral soul person (but just as bad-ass).

Next up, Lozada plans to bring Soul Popped to grocery stores, and hire staff so that she doesn’t have to rely on friends and family volunteering their time. Still an advocate for education, she also wants to use some of her company’s proceeds to set up a scholarship program for students. She’s the first to admit that this is all uncharted territory for someone who’s never even worked in a restaurant, but she’s up for the challenge. “It cracks me up to think I had this in me and I didn’t know it.”

By Steve Wilson • Photography by Andy Sams

Find out more at soulpopped.com or call 512-765-4784.