By Haley Wilson
The Birmingham Times
Tanesha Sims-Summers, CEO of Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co., describes herself as a “village child” raised by family members, which has a lot to do with her focus on community.
“We’ve been in business for almost eight years, and it still amazes me every day the impact that we have had on the community and, hopefully, will continue to have,” she said.
The impact of Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co. includes numerous partnerships with other small Birmingham-area businesses, including artist Yogi Dada’s artworks and Eugene’s Hot Chicken, as well as an internship program with The Birmingham Promise, which provides tuition funds and work experience for Birmingham City Schools students.
“Small businesses must make community, collaboration, and education part of growing our ecosystem,” Sims-Summers said. “God was able to take a product like kettle corn to allow me to grow a purposeful company that encompasses everything I stand for. I am dedicated to mentorship and being mentored. So, it’s not just popcorn with us—we exist to make relationships sweeter.”
Learning the Craft
When Sims-Summers, 40, talks about community, she thinks about family first. In 2014, her father, Emmett Sims, owned a party-supply store in Birmingham’s Five Points West area, where she first marketed her kettle corn.
“My father was gracious enough to put the [kettle corn] equipment together for us, and we did a practice round at his facility on Third Avenue West,” she said. Sims-Summers also added that her cousin, Fred Sims Jr., would pull her trailer around town and an aunt came to Alabama from Virginia to help take care of Sims-Summers’s newborn baby girl.
“[My aunt] was here about six months, which worked out great because that’s when the company launched,” said Sims-Summers. “She also was able to help us train and learn how to use the equipment, so [my aunt’s arrival in Birmingham] served a dual kind of purpose—she was here to care for my child so she wouldn’t have to go to day care and, of course, she helped us learn the craft of creating the product itself.”
Sims-Summers’s first event was the Annual Whistle Stop Festival in Irondale, Alabama. Even though she had a newborn baby at the time, Sims-Summers booked as many events as she could.
“We started with three flavors: Original Sweet and Salty, Cheddar Makes It Better, and French Toast,” she said. “We’ve invested time, sweat equity, education, and money in this company. … It’s paid for itself from the start, and we’ve seen a 20 percent or more increase in revenue year over year since we first launched.”
Naughty But Nice now offers 10 flavors, including the original three, as well as B’ham Mix and Salted Caramel Crunch.
“We have a fun, unique spin on sweet and salty kettle corn, hence the name Naughty But Nice,” she said.
In 2018, the Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co. moved into a small production facility at 5363 First Ave. North in Woodlawn. The popcorn, which is made and flavored at the brick-and-mortar location, can be purchased at the store, online, and at their mobile food truck.
In 2019, the team established “Ms. Poppy,” the company’s traveling food truck to go along with a family that includes Sims-Summers’s husband and co-founder, Clem, and their children Jaylen, 18; Amir, 17; Jacee, 7; and Janaah, 6.
“Ms. Poppy is our sixth child. Our dog, Merry, is our fifth,” Sims-Summers said. “I am just ecstatic about all the blessings we’ve experienced. You put in the work, and these are the results. Find your passions, use them, and give back.”
“All God’s Doing”
Sims-Summers “struggled” with many emotions growing up, she said.
“My biological mother was a young mom, 18. At the time, if she couldn’t be married to my father, she couldn’t see herself being a single mom, so she decided to place me for adoption. My mother and father had split, and my dad was serving in the military, the U.S Navy, and got word from his mom and sister that he had a ‘little girl that looked just like him, but she was being placed for adoption.’… My father took an immediate leave to come back to the states to save the day,” Sims-Summers said.
“I oftentimes felt out of place and confused,” she recalled. “Now that I am older, I know that was all God’s doing. You have to have a story and testimony to tell when He works it all out for you, and my childhood is mine.”
Sims-Summers was raised by a grandmother and aunt in Norfolk, Virginia, in the early part of her life. She then went to live with a grandmother, Geraldine, and grandfather, Emmett Sr., in Birmingham.
Growing up with her grandparents in the College Hills neighborhood, Sims-Summers got her first taste of entrepreneurship selling popsicles for 50 cents with a childhood friend: “I would go from car to car, hustling through the gridlocked traffic of people waiting to get into Legion Field for the Alabama-Auburn games that once were played there,” she said.
In 2001, Sims-Summers enrolled at the University of Montevallo, where she spent a year before enrolling at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where she earned a marketing degree in 2005.
Sims-Summers’s dream of entrepreneurship came to life in 2014, the year she gave birth to her now-7-year-old child, Jacee.
“I got married the same year to my husband and best friend, [Clem]; he and I had been dating for five years prior,” Sims-Summers said. “That was a busy year, to say the least. … It was also a very symbolic year. After giving birth and being at home [from a marketing job] nursing for four months, I struggled so much because motherhood was always a passion of mine, especially because I was not raised by my own biological mother.”
During Sims-Summers’s four-month maternity leave, her aunt, Janice, suggested a kettle corn business.
“’I said, ‘A kettle corn business? What is kettle corn anyway?’ … [My aunt] talked about a company in Virginia that people absolutely loved and couldn’t get enough of. I thought it was an awesome, unique idea, but I never had an interest in producing snack foods at all,” said Sims-Summers.
The conversation sparked her curiosity, so she spent the latter half of her maternity leave researching kettle corn—tasting different varieties, learning about her competition, and starting the planning process for her business. When she returned to work, she took samples for her co-workers to taste.
“They loved it. They started wanting to purchase during lunch breaks and weekends. I told myself, ‘We may have something,’” said Sims-Summers, who left that job, found her passion with Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co. and began to give back.