Kettle corn company pops into Richland storefront

Jeramy Schultz

Jeramy Schultz was trained to be a fighter during his five years in the Marine Corps.

Ever since, the Richland High School graduate has used those skills to battle the day-to-day skirmishes that a small businessman needs to overcome to be successful.

For Schultz, who has been in the kettle corn business for 18 years, that has meant sleeping in his car at times, surviving a pandemic, and now trying to get ready to open his first brick-and-mortar shop.

The new store at 624 George Washington Way in Richland is near the new location for Graze – A Place to Eat.

Schultz plans $250,000 in tenant improvements in the 960-square-foot suite in the Park Place strip mall, according to building permits approved May 4 by the city.

“We’re looking at an August opening, maybe sometime in mid-August,” Schultz said.

And with that opening will come a new marketing rebranding.

He’ll change the name from KC Brand Kettle Corn to Popcorn Northwest.

“It’s a gourmet style of product,” he said. “We’ll have three or four consistent products every day. Then we’ll swap out two or three different products every week. We want to keep it fresh. It’s going to be fun. Popcorn lovers are going to love it.”

The caramel apples and the fresh-squeezed lemonade his company is also known for also will be produced in the store.

Getting started

 Schultz has been in the kettle corn business since 2004, when he and a partner first bought the company from a previous owner.

It didn’t start out well.

“There is a difference between being a manager and an owner,” Schultz said. “As an owner, the bottom line is that financially it falls on you. I understood the buck stops here. If there were problems, I could only blame me.

“In 2004, we were losing money,” he continued. “Picture somebody holding their hands out, and pouring water on them, and you’re trying to catch all of the water. Can’t do it.”

At that point, Schultz realized he might be in over his head.

But he fought back by reading every business book he could find.

“I decided to go back to college,” he said.

In 2006, he bought his partner out.

Eventually, things turned in the right direction. And for the next 13 years, you could find KC Brand Kettle Corn all over the Tri-Cities and the Northwest.

He has a stand inside the Toyota Center that sells kettle corn, cotton candy and fresh-squeezed lemonade.

In 2018, Schultz bought a Subway sandwich franchise and opened it in Benton City.

And he kept traveling all over the Northwest to sell his kettle corn at fairs and festivals.

“Last year at the Whidbey Island Fair, I realized I’d been around a long time when I was selling kettle corn to children of the children I used to sell to,” he said.

Pandemic delays

The new store had been planned since 2019.

But Schultz was so busy with day-to-day operations that it had been put off.

And then the pandemic happened.

“Before the pandemic, there were eight people doing kettle corn in the Tri-Cities,” Schultz said. “Pretty much all got shut down. I was shut down for a year-and-a-half, and I got five months of PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) pay.”

He tried to take online orders. But people would order one bag when a single batch creates 10 bags.

“It became an uncomfortable situation,” he admitted.

Schultz had started collecting equipment a few years ago for a possible move into a shop.

That included an electric popcorn machine with a caramelizer in it.

Despite the pandemic, Schultz applied for a bank loan in February 2021, with the idea that the building would be ready to go in the fall 2021.

“Dealing with a bank in the pandemic took a year to approve the loan,” he said. “Prices of such things as lumber started going up. The supply chain caused a backlog of 12 weeks just to order equipment.”

Finally, Schultz is seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

He likes the new Park Place location, with G-Way traffic coming by all day long. The tough part is the store gets just one devoted parking space.

“But the building owner has been more than gracious to us, though,” Schultz said. “He’s been great.”

KC Brand Kettle Corn also has been known for its fundraising program, in which clubs or teams buy bags of kettle corn from the company at $3 a bag, then they sell them for $6.

“The pandemic kind of killed the fundraising,” Schultz said. “I’m trying to get back into it.”

The product and the store

Making kettle corn is different than making popcorn.

Kettle corn is made in a large kettle where most of the ingredients are added in, along with the kernels, before it is popped at a really high temperature.

In the kettle, corn kernels, oil, sugar, salt and flavoring are all mixed in.

Then the kettle is heated to 400 degrees.

The ingredients must be stirred the entire time to keep it all from burning.

As the kettle reaches temperature, the sugar and any other flavors start to melt.

As the kernels start to pop, the sugar and other flavors glaze over the popcorn.

Afterwards, salt and a touch more sugar is added.

But making the kettle corn is physically tough.

“My wrists and my shoulders are bad,” Schultz said. “You’re stirring 10 pounds of product for hours on end.”

With the new store, he said, people can now stand on the George Washington Way side of the building and watch employees make the kettle corn.

As customers walk in through the front door, they’ll be greeted by a tall wall filled with tins of the various products for sale that week.

“I’ll probably hire four or five people for the first year at the store,” he said. “The next year, I’ll probably need to hire another four or five people. I’ll hire people as soon as the store gets close to opening.”

Schultz said he still plans to keep his trailers to help feed the business.

“The first year, we’ll definitely still do events,” he said. “After that, we’ll measure the time, the stress and the numbers to see what we should do. But there are a handful of events between here and Prosser I still want to do.”

But opening the store will create better opportunities, he said.

“I love the retail, face-to-face aspect of business, meeting and talking with people,” he said. “I love that ‘Oh, wow!’ moment when someone tries our kettle corn for the first time. In this, if it goes the way it’s supposed to, our plan is to have that ‘Oh, wow!’ experience every time a customer comes into the store.”

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