Living in a treehouse in the middle of Little Haiti was the furthest thing from Shawnee Chasser’s mind when she arrived in glitzy Los Angeles in the late 1960s to pursue her dream of becoming a movie star. Walking across the country for a political cause seemed equally far removed from reality.
But Chasser’s life has never followed a prefab path. And at age 62, after checking off plenty of atypical boxes on her lifelong “have done” list, she’s now doing what any self-proclaimed hippie still full of energy does — she’s launched a green business to help change the world, one kernel at a time.
Drop into any Whole Foods Market and you will find Shawnee’s Greenthumb Popcorn, an addictive mix of organic popcorn and health food staples, such as nutritional yeast and spirulina. It’s hard not to eat the whole bag in one sitting, and it’s been flying off the shelves. On a recent trip to the Aventura store, there were no more bags in stock.
Brent King, regional grocery coordinator, says Whole Foods is always looking for unique local food producers who share their commitment to offer the highest-quality products. “Shawnee’s passion to create a tasty and nutritional popcorn snack made her a perfect fit for us, which is evident by its popularity with our customers and team members.”
Turning hobbies into business ventures is popular these days. Whether born of financial necessity or a desire for a more independent or fulfilling livelihood, it’s out of the kitchen and into the weekend farmer’s market — or local bistro or sometimes national chain. Think of the microbrew beer craze (Miami has jumped on that wagon), or the spate of chocolatiers, artisan bakers, or whisky distillers now making the foodie rounds. Portlandia, the hilarious eco-hipster satire airing on IFC (with clips on Hulu) riffed off artisanal popcorn this past season..
For Chasser the impetus to start her business was neither trend nor the economy. In 2008 big change started in. She moved off of her brother Ray Chasser’s Earth-N-Us Farm in Little Haiti, where she had lived (in a multilevel treehouse) for 15 years. And in a pivotal and heartbreaking moment the next year, her son, Joshua Braden Levy, died.
Chasser was devastated. At the same time, she felt the pull of life. “Josh taught me that we only have a short time on this planet,” she says. “You only have today. He kicked my ‘be here now’ philosophy into high gear.”
So where did Chasser turn for inspiration to get something going in life again? She didn’t have to look far. For years she’d been literally brown-bagging it for movie outings with friends and serving it up to her kids and grandkids. Everyone in her circle loved it, including her son Josh. Why wouldn’t everyone else?
Plus her inspiration had a pedigree.
In 1969 Chasser left her hometown of Miami (she attended Miami Norland Senior High) to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles. It ended up being the political climate of the times, not the movie world, that transformed her life.
“I had just finished playing the part of Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl,” Chasser recalls, “so I thought I was the greatest star ever. When I got to L.A., I was totally disillusioned. Everyone wanted to know my body size and body weight, and I didn’t think that had anything to do with my talent. It was one disillusionment after another until I started meeting political activists, and I realized I’d met my tribe.”
So Chasser decided to dedicate her life to creating peace on earth and headed over to UCLA to join the Vietnam war protests. She was still wearing her false eyelashes, she says, but soon ditched those for bare feet. And while others brought peanut-butter sandwiches along for fuel, Chasser brought her popcorn.
In 1986 Chasser signed onto the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament, walking from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., with her young kids, Wren and Josh, in tow. Her popcorn, which people referred to as her “famous popcorn” back then, fed hundreds along the nine-month trek, and was cooked up in a roving kitchen.
As to the recipe, Chasser says she’s added different ingredients — nutritional yeast (“the B-12 supplement”), garlic powder, cayenne pepper, and more — year after year, with the goal of creating a complete meal. The final ingredient she added was spirulina, a blue-green algae touted as having a wide range of health benefits.
Chasser says her biggest challenge is convincing people that green stuff can taste good. “It’s not easy being green,” she laughs, then gets earnest. She really believes in her product. “Once people taste it, they say, ‘Wow, it really is good.’ That’s what’s kept me going all these years — how people love it once they try it. Even my best friends who eat at Burger King.” (Chasser also points out her popcorn — which takes its “greenthumb” name from the color your fingers get when you dig into a bag — contains no genetically modified ingredients.)
As for the business operation, it’s down-home, which makes sense for a company with an unpretentious CEO who still lives in a backyard treehouse (“I can’t live inside”) and spends her life off-line (“We should be connecting more with the soil, not a computer”).
At a recent “pop and bag” session held at an industrial kitchen near Aventura, where she rents space, a friends-and-family assembly line worked the goods: measuring ingredients, mixing in freshly popped corn, bagging, sealing, labeling, filling boxes.
Art Friedrich, who assists Chasser with day-to-day responsibilities, confirms that they ship 25 cases each week to all 19 Whole Foods throughout Florida. They’re in the application process for national distribution with Whole Foods, and Chasser is excited about the new store opening on Biscayne Boulevard at 123rd Street. It’s located not far from her North Miami home, which will make checking shelves for stock a lot easier.
Chasser talks about the similarities between running a business and her previous incarnations as an actress and peacenik and treehouse designer, and even when she outfitted a trailer with solar power to drive her kids around the country. “I’ve always been a go-forward person,” she says. “If I didn’t have a project, my life didn’t work. This is just another project for me. The fact that it’s such a big project, I have been injected — and this is from my son Josh — with the reality it’s a short time we’re here and I need to hurry up.”
This is her final project, she says, together with opening a homeless shelter for women, which she hopes the popcorn will fund, but that’s a future chapter of her story.
Vegan, kosher, 95-percent organic, and gluten-free, Shawnee’s Greenthumb Popcorn is currently available in all local Whole Foods, as well as mom-and-pops such as The Honey Tree and the Upper Eastside Farmers Market.