BjornQorn Buys Skate Time 209 | Features | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

Throughout the Hudson Valley, BjornQorn’s popcorn has become a fixture in taprooms, coffee shops, and specialty grocery stores. But it’s no longer just a local phenomenon, with distribution across the country and, now, a new facility to meet the growing demand.

After a multi-year saga full of twists and turns that has had locals watching and waiting with bated breath, local institution Skate Time 209 in Accord has been saved from bureaucratic oblivion. In November 2022, the 30,000-square-foot building was purchased by BjornQorn to serve as a tandem production facility/skate rink. (In a tidy flourish of local connections, the real estate deal was brokered by man-of-many-hats Sean Nutley, who in addition to co-owning Bluecashew in Kingston and being a real estate agent, is one of the co-organizers of the annual blow-out Catskills Roller Disco at Skate Time.)

click to enlarge BjornQorn Buys Skate Time 209
BjornQorn's line of products are popped using energy from their solar panels.

The Snack’s Backstory

The lore of BjornQorn starts on Bard’s campus, or to be more precise, just steps off-campus in a fabled Annandale Road property dubbed The House. When Bjorn Quenemoen was a music student at Bard, living in the basement of the House with his friend Jaime O’Shea, they began throwing popcorn parties every Thursday night. The parties started at 10pm and ended abruptly at midnight.

“It was a way to bring people together that was interesting but also really quirky and limited,” says Quenemoen, who conceived of the weekly event as a sort of performance. “It was a festive environment—there was Calypso music, a red-hued atmosphere. You could get very limited things like Chick-O-Sticks, Claussen pickles, sarsaparilla, Red Stripe beer, and Lucky Strike singles. People would just show up.” Sometimes his barbershop quartet would take the stage to play the BjornQorn theme song.

After the pair graduated, it was another 10 years before the BjornQorn idea resurfaced, a decade the two art students spent “figuring out how to pay our bills.” Quenemoen continued playing music while building a parallel career as an audio/visual technician. In 2011, O’Shea, freshly returned to New York City from Austin, Texas, began working on a project using solar thermal technology in relation to art. “He is a technology artist and inventor,” Quenemoen explains. “He was working on the roof with these solar cookers and had the idea for how to build one at a massive scale. But he needed something to test it with, and he thought of me.”

Solar cookers and popcorn—a match made in sustainable snack heaven. After an initial test on Quenemoen’s family farm in Minnesota proved successful, it was off to the races. Through word of mouth, they got in touch with Chris Kelder of Kelder’s Farm in Kerhonkson. “Back then it was just a petting zoo, a jumping pillow, and U-Pick,” Quenemoen says. “We showed him our plan—which was basically to dig a big, big hole, make it reflective, and open a concession stand.”

They chose a spot close to Route 209, dug the hole, and for five years BjornQorn operated out of Kelder’s using O’Shea’s technology and earning the snack’s tagline “sun-popped corn.” With their signature flavor, BjornQorn took to market a snack beloved by children of hippies everywhere: popcorn dusted in savory nutritional yeast. And it was a hit.

Popping Off

When market success led them to outgrow the Kelder’s facility, Quenemoen and his partners, his wife Stephanie Bauman and O'Shea, purchased a dairy barn across the street on Queen’s Highway. Though it was no longer viable to use solar thermal technology at the new facility, they continued to pop corn using solar panels.

click to enlarge BjornQorn Buys Skate Time 209
Photo by Chris Panetta
BjornQuorn's solar-powered facility on Queen's Highway is located in an old dairy barn.

“Cooking with solar thermal, concentrated sunlight was our way to separate ourselves at first,” says Quenemoen. “We didn't know what kind of chance we had in the snack market. It’s really competitive. I think what surprised us was that flavor took off so fast that we quickly outstripped our capability to pop popcorn with those solar basins. We wanted to hire people and wanted to make sure we had safe operating conditions. So around 2017, we decided we needed a more functional conventional kitchen using solar electric.”

In the following five years, the company only continued to grow (BjornQorn is now sold by retailers in over two dozen states), and the Queens Highway property started to get cramped. They rented storage at the High Falls Industrial Complex but things were still tight. “We’re still operating there right now, but we are maxing out that place,” Quenemoen says. “Now with the Skate Time acquisition, we’re using a warehouse there for storage. That lets us squeeze more capacity out of our current space and leaves us room to build the third version of business.”

click to enlarge BjornQorn Buys Skate Time 209
All of BjornQorn's kernels are from non-GMO corn and processed in-house.

To give you a sense of scale, in 2023, Quenemoen expects the company will pop 100,000 pounds of popcorn or more. BjornQorn, which employs 10 people, has expanded from the single, original flavor to a line of five flavors, including the newest—Maple, a collab with local company Tree Juice; Earth, a truffle-flavored collaboration with Eataly and Urbani; Spicy, made with a blend of jalapeno pepper varieties; and Cloudy, a salty version. All the products are still made with non-GMO corn and safflower oil.

Skating Along

To all the nostalgic roller rink lovers out there, fret not, BjornQorn’s plan is to keep the rink operational. The previous owners of Skate Time, who had planned to rebrand to Neighborhood 209, removed the skate park installation, which ultimately provided enough storage space for BjornQorn to be viable.

The space takeover will happen in phases, beginning with storage and ending in onsite production. The barn on Queen’s Highway will continue to serve as the site for grain processing and storage. For the rink endeavor, the partners have formed a new business with separate management, which includes the three owners of BjornQorn plus friends and neighbors Stefan Merrill-Block and Liese Mayer.

click to enlarge BjornQorn Buys Skate Time 209
The new owners plan to drop 209 from the name but the space will continue on as Skate Time.

The rink will also be a phased roll-out. To start, it will run normally with skate rentals, music, popcorn and drink sales, and eventually beer and wine. “We’ll maybe update the appearance, but it’s really a great facility,” Quenemoen says. “The skate floor is great, all the skates are there, almost everything works. The sound system is great. The lights are really good. It’s a place you could show up and open tomorrow.”

First-tier upgrade plans include a refresh to the bathrooms, fridges, fixing broken equipment, and repairing the arcade machines. “We don’t have a lot of data as to how much interest there is. We need to get it open and see what people think, what they want,” Quenemoen says. “We’re not limiting ourselves on what we can do in the space. We’re letting some local designers free their minds and envision what the space could be.” Potential ideas include creating transparency between the production and skating sides of the operation (like a modern brewery where the tanks are visible through a glass wall.)

click to enlarge BjornQorn Buys Skate Time 209
The arcade, food court, and storage area (formerly a skate park) beyond.

The annual Catskills Roller Disco is already on the calendar for June 3, and that’s just the beginning of the owners' schemes. “There is an entertainment aspect to popcorn, which makes it a bit unusual in the snack world,” Quenemoen says. “You get it at sporting events, at movie theaters, at any concession that is like this—a bowling alley or a skate rink. We are interested, as this develops, in doing more than just skating there because it just makes sense.” There are already in talks with Upstate Films about hosting screenings there, and several event promoters have stopped by to scope out the space for concerts. Movies, music, readings, writing workshops—the sky's the limit.

But first thing’s first: Get Skate Time open again. The plan is to open the doors for at least a day or two in February and go from there. “We hope the community likes it,” Quenemoen says. “You can’t please everybody but we’re going to do our best to make something valuable.”

Marie Doyon

Marie is the Digital Editor at Chronogram Media. In addition to managing the digital editorial calendar and coordinating sponsored content for clients, Marie writes a variety of features for print and web, specializing in food and farming profiles.
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