The local man, who grew up on the Eastside and attended UW, once owned a chain of hospitals in the South, then sold them all and became a professional racecar driver.
For 10 years, he competed in events all over the world, winning 33 professional races and three championships.
Now, retired from the sport, he is owner and CEO of HALFPOPS, a natural snack food company dedicated to reinventing the popcorn category.
“I have an entrepreneur background among other things,” says Fitzgerald, “but before this, I’d never done anything related to food so that aspect of it is all new.”
He explains that the idea for the unique snack food did not originate with him.
“Another guy, who was enamored with the crunchier pieces at the bottom of the popcorn bowl, came up with the idea,” says Fitzgerald.
“He experimented and figured out how to pop the corn kernels half way and then filed a patent application. But, he couldn’t get a business going. A friend connected me to this guy and I stepped in.”
This was back in 2008. Fitzgerald spent the next few years working on perfecting the recipe in his kitchen, designing packaging and getting the necessary equipment together to produce the product.
He then leased warehouse space in Woodinville and worked for nine months to get all the production details ironed out.
HALFPOPS was launched last April and immediately attracted fans.
Early devotees of the all-natural, gluten-free, air-popped snack include Barking Frog Executive Pastry Chef Matt Kelley, who liked them so much he opted to incorporate them into a dessert.
“I’m always looking for fun and different ingredients to add something extra to my menu,” comments Kelley. “My wife and I love snacking on HALFPOPS as a treat, but I realized that they could enhance my desserts as well.”
In October, Food Network Magazine named the product one of the “10 Things You Need to Know This Month,” and Every Day with Rachel Ray magazine included HALFPOPS in “Rachael Ray’s Faves.”
The snack food has also been featured in Cool Hunting and a host of other online publications.
Locally, HALFPOPS can be found in over 70 stores, mostly in the Seattle area, but they’re also in selected stores in Alaska, Oregon and California.
“Metropolitan Market was the first one we went into last June,” notes Fitzgerald. “The success there led to getting our product into the Hagen Top Food chain and then other stores followed such as Central Market and Your Local Market.
“We also launched our online store in July, which makes HALFPOPS available anywhere in the U.S. and around the world.”
The response to the product has been extremely good, according to Fitzgerald.
He says that most everyone who tries HALFPOPS loves them.
“People tell us they’re addictive,” he adds. “They’re flavorful and for a snack, they’re fairly healthy and low in fat calories when compared to other snacks.
“We market them as a natural product that has no preservatives or artificial ingredients, and they’re made in a nut-free facility.”
The company’s production space is about 5,000 square feet and accommodates a 14,000-pound-popcorn popper, which can make 10,000 bags in three hours.
Currently, the company produces two flavors of HALFPOPS: butter and sea salt and white cheddar.
Fitzgerald hopes to add a third flavor in the future. He says, “We have an online poll going on right now to determine what the flavor will be.
People can choose from kettle corn, chipotle lime or jalapeno cheddar. So far, kettle corn is winning.”
He adds, “We won’t be adding another flavor though until we get more production capacity.
“We’re looking for a bigger space, but we want to stay in Woodinville.”
The local man chose Woodinville because he likes the area, particularly the “vibe” that has been created from all the wineries and breweries in residence.
Fitzgerald’s ultimate goal for the company is to make HALFPOPS a national brand.