SALEM — The calls for people to stay at home came up against an equally powerful force this weekend in Salem – Hobbs’ famous buttered popcorn.
Hundreds of people turned out for the 2020 opening of E.W. Hobbs, the historic popcorn stand that has operated for 123 years at Salem Willows. On opening day on Saturday, the line extended all the way down to the arcade at the other end of the Willows pavilion, according to co-owner Charlie Hobbs.
Hobbs estimated that 500 people showed up, making it the busiest day since the time after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 when all sales were donated to a victims’ fund. He said he did not announce the opening until Saturday morning on Facebook and was surprised by the turnout.
“We thought we could sneak it in a little bit,” he said. “I have to attribute it to people having been shut in. People looked at it as a little excuse to get out for a little bit with minimum exposure.”
Hobbs said he felt an obligation to open the business in the midst of the coronavirus epidemic based on its long history of serving as a respite for people going through troubled times. He and his sister, Priscilla Hobbs, are the fourth generation in their family to run the business.
In a message on Facebook, Charlie Hobbs said he decided to go ahead with the traditional opening on the first weekend of April “just like the business had done for 123 years,” through epic events including the flu epidemic of 1918, the Great Depression, and two world wars.
“Through these times, my great grandfather, grandfather and father have maintained the business and opened under difficult times to be a beacon of hope, a reminder of what we are all missing, and to bring a measure of comfort and familiarity in extremely trying times,” he wrote.
“I’ve been thinking back to my (late) father,” Hobbs said in the interview on Sunday. “I always relied on him as a source of inspiration and knowledge in my life. He told me that during World War II people felt it was important for us to remain open for morale and a sense of normalcy.”
The announcement to open for business drew more than 300 responses on the Hobbs’ Facebook page, the vast majority of them positive. But in an interview, Hobbs acknowledged that some people were upset about the decision considering the circumstances.
“I respect their opinion, for sure,” he said. “But the overwhelming amount of support was heartening.”
To encourage customers to maintain social distancing, Hobbs put down white duct tape every six feet on the sidewalk in front of the business. He and his workers wore gloves and masks. Customers ordered and paid at one window and picked up their popcorn at another window. The store was open for only five hours, shorter than usual.
Hobbs, of course, is just one of many businesses that are open during the crisis. Carry-out and “quick serve” food operations have been deemed essential services by Gov. Charlie Baker.
“Is popcorn essential?,” Hobbs asked. “Technically you can live without popcorn. But where do you draw the line? Is pizza essential? Are doughnuts essential? I’ve got several friends in Salem Hospital so I definitely understand the concerns. We’re wearing masks, changing our gloves, and keeping track of our customers as much as we can.”
Mayor Kim Driscoll said Hobbs is allowed to open as long as they are only serving take-out and can ensure that customers are practicing safe distancing. She said the city’s public health staff are monitoring those type of situations and have been in touch with all food establishments to ensure they are following guidelines.
Salem Police Chief Mary Butler said police checked on the situation and observed that customers in line were self-distancing. She said it could be a problem if other businesses at Salem Willows also open and it becomes too crowded. As of Sunday, Hobbs was the only business open at the Willows.
Butler said police could work with the Parks and Recreation Department to eliminate parking in one area of the Willows to free up space for customers waiting in line to space out.
On Sunday at 1 p.m., about 25 people stood in line at Hobbs, all of them staying within the white lines that had been taped on the sidewalk at six-feet intervals.
Lisa Fraser, 61, of Salem, said she has been going to Hobbs since she was “old enough to eat popcorn.” Asked if she was worried about going out for popcorn during a pandemic, she said, “Kinda sorta.”
“But we have to live, too,” she said. “If people play by the rules, staying six feet apart, I think it’ll be OK.”
Charlie Hobbs said they are planning to open again this Thursday through Saturday. Easter is usually a big day for business, but he said he won’t open because he doesn’t want a really large crowd.
After that, he said, “We’ll just take it day by day.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535 or email@example.com.