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Joan C. Zeisler dies, former CEO of Garrett Popcorn Shops, renowned hostess

Retired Garrett Popcorn CEO & President Joan C. Zeisler | Provided

Retired Garrett Popcorn CEO & President Joan C. Zeisler | Provided

Joan Zeisler often smelled tantalizingly of a popcorn perfume.

She started working the counter at Garrett Popcorn, the family business, when she was only 6 or 7. The company, which started in Milwaukee in 1931, opened in Chicago in 1949 at State and Madison, where the mouthwatering aroma created lines of hungry customers down the block.

Mrs. Zeisler, retired CEO and president of Garrett Popcorn Shops, died Dec. 14 at Swedish Covenant Hospital. She was 84 and had dementia.

The Garrett Popcorn signature logo is based on her penmanship, said her daughter Karen Zeisler, former company COO. “She had beautiful handwriting,” she said.

Her mother Gladys Garrett was a creator of the family popcorn recipes — originally cheese, butter and trademarked CaramelCrisp — in their hometown of Milwaukee, according to Karen Zeisler. “My grandmother had a sweet tooth,” she said.  

Joan was born in Urbana, grew up in Milwaukee and graduated in 1952 from New Trier High School. She met her future husband, Karl Zeisler, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, her daughter said. They married in Wilmette in 1954. He worked as an executive, professor and administrator. They moved for his career, at times living in Cincinnati, Portland; La Jolla, California, and Aspen.  

She especially loved Aspen. “They liked the mountains, they liked the clean air,” their daughter said. Mrs. Zeisler adored classical music, especially Schubert’s Trout Quintet and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. She patronized the Aspen Music Festival and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In 1970, she received a degree in education from National Louis University.

After her mother Gladys died in 1982, Mrs. Zeisler, who was living in Streeterville, took on a larger role in the family business. “She worked until she retired,” her daughter said. “She did everything. She made CaramelCrisp, she did deliveries, she hired people” and did bookkeeping.

Oprah named the CaramelCrisp and CheeseCorn mix one of her favorite things. Kanye West’s mother, Donda, used to order and ship Garrett’s popcorn to her son and others. Jim Nabors and Halle Berry were fans. 

The family sold the company in 2005.

Mrs. Zeisler was a skilled cook and gracious hostess whose dinners and holiday gatherings kept generations of relatives close, her daughter said: “She did love hosting parties and loved having our extended family together.”

And, her daughter said, she never tired of popcorn.

A memorial service is planned from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 19 at the Drake Hotel.