About this blog
Thrill of Brazil is a travel blog all about Brazil written by Moon Brazil author Michael Sommers. Michael blogs about Brazil travel, culture, and more. He welcomes questions, comments, and story ideas.
- Care for a Drink with your Film? (or a Film with your Drink?)
- Brazil’s Homegrown Tourism Boom
- Brazil's Best and Write-est
- Making House Calls in Rio (Part II)
- Making House Calls in Rio (Part I)
- The Dawning of Brazil's B&B Age
- Rio's Alternative Points of View
- Taxi Trouble in Santa Teresa
- Obamas Take to the Campaign Trail in Brazil
- Plans and Punctuality
- Reliving Tropicalismo - On and Off Screen
- Food and Lodging that Make the Grade
- The Making of Moon Living Abroad in Brazil
- U.S. is Number One Source of Immigrants to Brazil
- Best English-Language Blogs about Brazil
Pipoca Tale No. 3
The third and final story in this trio of Brazilian pipoca (popcorn) tales deals with Valdir Novak, a 37-year-old pipoqueiro (popcorn man) from the southern Brazilian state of Paraná. Undoubtedly, tales similar to Valdir's could occur in many places, but for some reason his story strikes me as utterly Brazilian.
Valdir was born and raised in the interior of Paraná. He completed Grade 4 before dropping out of school to work as a farm labourer. In his late teens, he moved to the state capital of Curitiba, a city that boasts one of the highest standards of living in Brazil, where he married, had a child, and worked in a series of service jobs – including newspaper vendor, snack bar clerk, and parking attendant – to make ends meet. At one point, he began making and selling popcorn, renting a friend's carrinho de pipoca (popcorn cart), and he enjoyed the experience so much that he became determined to become Brazil's best pipoqueiro.
It took 12 years for Valdir to receive a municipal license to operate his own carrinho. He chose Praça Tiradentes, right in the center of town (facing Curitiba's 19th-century, neo-gothic cathedral), as his fixed spot, and almost immediately, he started making a name for himself. Fundamental to his success as a pipoqueiro, of course, was the pipoca itself; Valdir insisted on using Grade A popping corn, quality sunflower oil, and top brands of bacon (for his pipocas salgadas) and cocoa (for his pipocas doces).
But Valdir was determined to take his business far beyond the fundamentals. With regard to cleanliness and hygiene, always a concern when it comes to street food, Valdir scrubs his equipment daily with alcohol and soap and makes a point of changing his immaculate white uniform daily (as proof, customers need only check out the days of the week - segunda-feira (Monday), terça-feira (Tuesday), quarta-feira (Wednesday), etc. - which have been monogrammed onto his breast pocket). Meanwhile, each and every customer receives a "hygiene kit" consisting of a white napkin, an individually-wrapped toothpick, a "high-quality" mint, and a tiny sachet containing dental floss.
Indeed, Valdir really goes all out when it comes to customer service. Faithful customers are rewarded (those who purchase 5 bags of popcorn, get a 6th bag for free) as are greedy ones (buy 10 bags at once and Valdir will throw in 2 more as a bonus). And like any serious 21rst-century business, Valdir has invested in a website. Among other goodies, it includes a detailed description of his equipment and materials; testimonies from loyal clients; popcorn history and trivia; and a video of a kernel of popcorn exploding in slow motion. Also featured are some innovative popcorn recipes ranging from pipocas com raspas de limão (popcorn with grated lime rind) to pipocas com tempero de macarrão instantâneo (popcorn flavored with Ramen soup mix).
While few pipoqueiros are involved in philanthropy, Valdir makes a point of visiting local hospitals where he and his carrinho appear to cheer kids up and distribute free bags of pipoca. Even fewer pipoqueiros have succeeded in creating a profitable sideline by giving business seminars, but this is what Valdir accomplished after Ricardo Coelho, a marketing consultant and loyal customer, encouraged the charismatic pipoqueiro to get out and tell his inspirational story. In fact, if you can't find Valdir and his carrinho on Praça Tiradentes, chances are he's traveling around Brazil, giving motivational lectures to students and entrepreneurs.
The resulting media coverage has has transformed this unorthodox pipoqueiro into one of the best known popcorn men in the country. Yet although Valdir is ambitious, he's indifferent to fame. His main motivation is the human contact that is one of the main perks of being a pipoqueiro. Indeed, ask one of his loyal Curitibano customers what they appreciate most about him, and they'll inevitably mention his unfailing good humor. Says Valdir: "I always have a smile on my face because I always say that a smile is the shortest distance between two people."
(Note: The musical clip above entitled O Pipoqueiro ("The Popcorn Man") is written and performed by the late Ismael Carlos, a Brazilian singer/composer of the '80s and '90s, who specialized in música brega (literally "tacky", but actually more "camp" music).