By Kathryn Sesser-Dorné
Special to The Times
Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co. just hit the two-year mark in July, but for friends and business partners Tiffany Turner and Tanesha Sims-Summers, it’s been a lifelong journey to get here.
Growing up in College Hills, the two became best friends at age six, bonding over Alabama football and being the only kids on their block at the time.
“We just started playing with some sticks in the yard … And then ‘Hey, we’re friends!’” Sims-Summers said. “We just did a lot of kids stuff; riding bikes, making mud pies … It was a big adventure to walk through our neighborhood.”
Many changes have occurred since the pair went their separate ways for college; Sims-Summers originally to Montevallo and then University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), Turner to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. But one thing has remained constant: Their love for each other and a shared entrepreneurial spirit.
“Her aunt brought some kettle corn home from Virginia,” Turner said about the origins of their company. “She actually worked for a lady who did this. We tried it, and thought, ‘This is pretty neat.’ So, we researched it and knew Birmingham didn’t have anything like it. We just took the leap and did it. Plus, we knew it was something we could do on the weekends. And, if it didn’t work out we could just let it go …” she added with a laugh.
But they haven’t let it go, in fact, quite the opposite.
Sims-Summers, who worked in digital marketing and then investment banking, has since left her corporate job to manage the company’s growth full-time. Taylor is still taking advantage of those weekend hours as she continues her work with Vulcan Materials, but hopes Naughty But Nice’s success this year will allow her to go full-time with the start-up as well.
“It’s getting bigger and bigger,” Turner said.
A Tasty Treat
If you are not familiar with kettle corn, Naughty But Nice refers to it as “popcorn on steroids,” with a sweet and salty taste. But the ladies have taken it one step further by mixing up the flavors of this centuries-old treat. Currently they serve three staple flavors: kettle corn, French toast kettle corn and cheddar kettle corn, but are coming up with new variations to try each season.
“Once people taste it, they’re hooked,” Sims-Summers said.
One thing they are focusing on at the moment is working with Birmingham restaurants to create a “Local Pop!” flavor. The first incarnation features the spices from Eugene’s Hot Chicken and it’s become a popular choice for many customers. The collaboration helps highlight both businesses involved.
“He was in our CO.STARTERS program,” Turner said of Zebbie Carney of Eugene’s Hot Chicken. Sims-Summers and Turner went through the 10-week program sponsored by REV, Create Birmingham and MAKEbhm. CO.STARTERS is a national platform to help communities grow local business.
After going through the program, Turner and Sims-Summers started making a name for themselves at area Farmers’ markets, including Pepper Place and the market outside Urban Cookhouse at The Summit. Naughty But Nice has also begun to do corporate gifting and corporate events, where they set their propane-powered kettle up on site and pop away.
“We’ve started getting a lot of businesses who want to use our product for marketing,” Turner said. Everything from a dental lab to a company that creates locally-sourced food baskets has taken notice of the sweet, savory popcorn.
“We’re putting in a lot of legwork, and it’s just so many critical decisions,” Sims-Summers said. “You see these people starting up businesses, and they are so successful, and people are going crazy over them … How do you get to that stage? We’re holding out, hopefully it will get to that stage. We’re thinking about how our product can become national without even having a physical brick and mortar location. How do we produce more? How do we create the experience and keep the experience?
“These are all the challenges we’re facing right now. And you don’t want to just give up because you can’t figure it out,” she said with a laugh. “Even now, we had an investor opportunity, but we don’t need money. We’re women, we’re a double minority, there are funds out there. What we need is when we get this money, how do we best spend it? How do we allocate it to grow?
“I think the key is to keep working hard and try and make the right connections. Finding out what your obstacles are and spending your time and effort on that too,” Sims-Summers said. “You have to do this part to get to the other part.”
In addition to markets and corporate sales, Naughty But Nice is working to branch out to weddings and other events. From fancy popcorn bars to wedding favors, the snack serves as a perfect treat for guests. Sims-Summers and Turner are constantly looking at new ideas and new markets for growth, as well as offering life lessons to help other small businesses out.
“We always love telling our story, to try and motivate people to make the leap,” Turner said referring to a recent SIP event at TrimTab Brewing Company. “Even if it’s baby steps, do it. You don’t know if you don’t try it.”
At the Royal Cup and REV-sponsored event, the pair spoke about being a start-up company in the first stages of business. It was there they met with Books-A-Million executives, and a plan is now underway to stock some of their kettle corn in a number of stores for a trial run.
“That was a total surprise,” Turner said.
As far as advice for someone just starting out with their own business, the women have their fair share.
“Never give up, never be discouraged, because you will have setbacks,” Turner said. “But it is OK to fail. It may not be the time or the place, but you’ll never know unless you try.”
“Have fun while you’re doing it. Never give up” Sims-Summers added. “You have to remember that anyone who has anything great has to work hard for it. You have to push through the obstacles, you have to surround yourself with like-minded people. Focus on why you’re doing it, instead of the money, because you know it takes time to grow and make money. We all have different gifts and talents.
“It’s been cool starting something from the ground up,” Sims-Summers said. “And if you can really make it pop … all businesses had to start somewhere.”
Where to Buy?
Naughty But Nice’s kettle corn can be purchased at various Farmers’ markets throughout Birmingham. You can follow Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co. on Facebook or Instagram to see where they may be next.
Can’t wait for a market? The kettle corn can also be found at Avondale’s Sozo Trading Company, 4 41st St S. Birmingham.
What is CO.STARTERS?
REV is partnering with Create Birmingham and MAKEbhm to bring CO.STARTERS, a nationally renowned business development program, to Birmingham. This ten-week program equips aspiring entrepreneurs with the insights, relationships, and tools needed to turn business ideas into action.
CO.STARTERS is a platform to help communities grow local business. Participants enter into a facilitator-led, collaborative process with a small and supportive group of like-minded peers. Working together, participants identify their assumptions about why and how their businesses will work, and then talk to customers in order to validate their ideas. This approach enables entrepreneurs to rapidly uncover flaws in their concepts and find viable models more quickly. Participants leave the program with a deeper understanding of how to create a sustainable business, articulate their models, and repeat the process with the next great idea.
What’s really great is that the entire process has been refined over a period of years. It was originally developed in Chattanooga, and 75% of businesses launched out of CO.STARTERS Chattanooga are still in operation. In Birmingham, REV has seen 63% of graduates operating their business within a year of graduation, with more successes to come.
Upcoming Program Dates: September – November 14
More information: www.revbirmingham.org/rev-biz/costarters/