Hoosier Workers: Bill Rairigh, The Kettle Corn Popper

Sep 13, 2021

Every September opens with Labor Day  a celebration of those who work in America. All this month, we're bringing you stories of workers across Indiana, about what they do and how they find meaning in their jobs. 

This week we profile Bill Rairigh, a professional popcorn popper. He tells his story as he works at the Indiana State Fair.

  

"The secret to popcorn is having a good recipe," Bill Rairigh said.

"When I started popping kettle corn – '02, '05, something like that – a lot of it was almost brown, kind of like the color of that cardboard over there. I didn’t want that, because it kind of tasted burnt to me. So I worked at turning it white. [I] just kept working at it, to get it where I wanted it, and holding it there. The challenge, for me, has always intrigued me – to be able to succeed has always intrigued me. 

"I want it white and fluffy, but people didn’t understand. They didn’t think that was kettle corn. They know now. It amazes me how they come back every year. That’s what’s cool about it: if you do a good job, they won’t forget you.

"I’ll tell you a secret about it. Beet sugar works better for kettle corn. Don’t ask me what the difference is, but Domino [cane sugar] causes it to gum up, get gooey and then you’ve kind of got to let it cool. After it gets cool, you pick the bag up and it kind of crumbles down. I don’t like that. 

"You wait for it to turn pastel yellow, that’s when I add the sugar and it’ll start to pop a little bit.

"I think I do about 35 spots a year. I’m not really certain on that, but probably about 35. Used to be, I mean, every weekend you’d book, except you know there’s times in the wintertime you can’t. 

"My grandfather owned a circus so I guess the vagabond or whatever was kind of built into me. But, in the beginning I suppose it was a little bit hard because we had little kids and we had to be away from them, but then you get used to that.

"I love the Indiana State Fair, you know? It’s 17 days of being able to be in one place. And you don’t find that in this business. It’s always weekends or maybe a week. So to have 17 days is pretty cool. 

"I’m 64, [and I'm] going to be 65 in December. I hope to be able to do it until 70 because the pandemic screwed me out of a year’s worth of income.

"It ain’t for everybody. It’s hot in here, it’s miserable sometimes. You gotta be determined in life. A lot of people aren’t, people give up too easy. Something like this, they would never thing a guy can make a living at it. They close their brain to what the possibilities are. And I’m not that way. I don’t do that. 

"I enjoy it because I’ve been doing it for so long. You've got to love it. If you don’t love it, you won’t be here."

Bill Rairigh told his story to workforce reporter Justin Hicks. Contact Justin at jhicks@wvpe.org or follow him on Twitter at @Hicks_JustinM.