Shirley’s brings local flavor to retail popcorn

BLUFFTON — It all started with a small-town movie theater and a smile.

Bluffton’s Shannon Theatre has been a mainstay in the village’s downtown, and part of its appeal has been its hot buttered popcorn. When Pete and Kim Suter bought the Shannon Theatre in 2007, the popcorn’s popularity gave them a kernel of an idea for a new business.

“We had both worked here for many, many years, and we had so many people coming in to buy popcorn and take home with them,” Pete Suter said. “We decided there was maybe a market for a broader popcorn brand in the area.”

When it came to naming this new business before its 2009 opening, the Suters looked to another mainstay at the Shannon.

“We named it after our longtime ticket cashier at the Shannon Theatre, Miss Shirley Torsell,” Mr. Suter said. “She had passed away from cancer several years earlier, and the family agreed that we could name the brand after here.”

The Suters prioritized quality ingredients in their products, which range from the classics, which trend toward savory flavors, to the premium flavors, which include additions like chocolate drizzle.

“There are a lot of popcorn stores that say, ‘We have hundreds of flavors, and we’re always in stock,’” Pete Suter said. “We said that we’re going to do a couple of handfuls of flavors, and we’re going to do them really well. We’re going to make everything in small batches by hand on a daily basis. So it’s always fresh, it always looks great and it always tastes great.”

The initial success of Shirley’s Popcorn led to rapid expansion through franchising, with the brand expanding to seven locations spread over three states, including a location in Lima.

“Then COVID hit,” Pete Suter said. “Between COVID and a tight labor market and double-digit inflation, any retail business will tell you that life has gotten very difficult and a little less enjoyable.”

That development led to several Shirley’s locations closing, including Lima’s, a move that Suter admitted was a painful one. Shirley’s is now reduced to three locations — its original Bluffton location, one in Indiana and one in Virginia. That does not mean, however, that Shirley’s has cut all ties with Lima.

“When I started visiting with folks about how we can get back into the Lima community, Joyce Tracy of Tracy’s Appliances said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come do a pop-up in our parking lot?’” Pete Suter said. “We go over there twice a month now.”

Like any business, Shirley’s goal is to turn a profit. Still, the Suters are also passionate about using their business to invest in a cause dear to Miss Shirley’s heart: literacy.

“She would bring books to the theatre to hand out to little kids as they would come into the movies,” Pete Suter said. “So every year for Shirley’s birthday — it’s in the middle of June — we invest 100 percent of the sales that day into literacy projects. The project we’ve been working on recently is planting little libraries across the region.”

To date, Shirley’s has planted eight to 10 little libraries throughout Allen, Putnam and Hancock counties.

“And we have one of our folks stopping by every other week to make sure those little libraries are filled with books,” Pete Suter said.


Many businesses and organizations started right here in the Lima region, with the goal of making an impact in the region. This year’s Celebrating Our Spirit looks at those trailblazers. Read more stories at