Greg Reece of Louisville prepares a kettle of popcorn at the 2014 Kentucky State Fair. (Kentucky Department of Agriculture photo)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – One of the best business decisions that Greg Reece ever made was switching suppliers in his Kentucky Proud kettle corn business.
Reece, owner of Mr. G’s Kettle Corn in Louisville, can tell the difference after making the switch last year to Kentucky-grown kernels supplied by Preferred Popcorn, another Kentucky Proud business.
“The other corn wasn’t popping the same because I was getting different corn every time,” said Reece. “My supplier at the time couldn’t tell me where my corn was coming from.”
So Reece called Brian Churchill at Preferred Popcorn and started buying popcorn from him that was grown in Hopkins County. Reece said the kernels are bigger, which makes thicker pieces of popcorn.
“Consumers have let me know that they can tell the difference between my corn and my competitors’ corn,” the Louisville native said. “I’m all Kentucky Proud now. I won’t pop nothin’ but Kentucky corn.”
Reece said the Kentucky Proud kernels are fresher, which makes a big difference. A slogan on his website, www.mrgskettlecorn.com, reads: “From the farm to the kettle, no other kettle corn is as fresh as Mr. G’s Kettle Corn!”
“I pop corn that comes out of the silo that month or the month prior,” Reece said. “That’s what we mean by fresh. It definitely makes a difference.”
Kentucky Proud banners boost sales
Reece proudly displays Kentucky Proud banners where he sets up his two concessions trailers, which he believes increases his sales.
“Just hanging up that Kentucky Proud banner helps more than anything,” he said. “It lets people know up front just what they’re getting. If they know they’re supporting a local person who’s supporting a local farmer, they’re more apt to buy my product.”
From March to mid-December 2014, Mr. G’s popped more than 9,000 pounds of Kentucky-grown corn.
“[In 2015], I expect to double that,” Reece said boldly. “I’ve doubled my business every year.”
Reece said many of his customers ask him where they can buy his corn outside of his two trailers, which set up at several Louisville-area farmers’ markets from March to October as well as other special events, such as the Kentucky State Fair.
Currently, the only retail store carrying Mr. G’s Kettle Corn is Lucky’s Market, 200 N. Hurstbourne Parkway in Louisville.
His two commercial-size 160-quart kettles can barely produce Lucky’s Market’s standing order of 72 bags a week, which doubled briefly to 144 during the holidays. Mr. G’s was featured in December on Lucky’s sales fliers as a local businessman promoting Kentucky farmers.
“My two kettles don’t produce quickly enough to keep up with retail,” Reece said. “Lucky’s is keeping me busy with just that one store. Right now, I couldn’t possibly keep up with somebody like, say, Kroger without some industrial equipment.”
Reece dreams of opening a store alongside the distilleries in Louisville’s Whiskey Row, capitalizing on the Bourbon Trail tourism. He wants to have a storefront where passers-by can look through the glass and see his kettle corn popping in huge kettles even larger than his current 160-quart models. Exhaust fans would pump the aroma of fresh kettle corn onto the street to draw in hungry distillery visitors.
“All the distilleries have glass walls so people can see how bourbon is made,” Reece said. “My vision is a glass wall behind the counter so they can watch us making kettle corn. If they see it being made, they know it’s fresh.
“I want to be part of Kentucky tourism,” he added. “They’re making bourbon out of Kentucky corn, and I’ll be popping Kentucky corn.”
Restaurant dreams detoured
Reece never dreamed of being in the kettle corn business after attending Sullivan University’s renowned culinary arts program in 2011. He wanted to open his own restaurant.
But banks were reluctant to loan the large sum of money needed to start a restaurant to an inexperienced chef. Reece, 47, retired in September 2014 after working 22 years as a truck driver.
His interest in kettle corn was kindled when he attended a NASCAR race in Bristol, Tenn.
“I bought a big ole bag of kettle corn for $8,” he said. “I stood three or four blocks away and watched one person after another walk by eating those bags of popcorn. I thought to myself, ‘He’s making a killing.’”
After doing a little online research and experimenting with recipes in his kitchen with a 16-quart kettle, Reece invested in a 160-quart commercial-size kettle and sold his first batch at a farmers’ market in 2011.
“All I planned on doing was popping one day a week and making a little spending money,” he said. “But one thing led to another. I was asked, ‘Can you do it here? Can you do it there?’ I never said no.
“Last year , I bought me another kettle and starting going to three or four farmers’ markets per week.”
If you don’t live in the Louisville area, you can purchase Mr. G’s Kettle Corn online on its website, http://mrgskettlecorn.com/.
“I pop it every Sunday and ship it out on Monday morning,” he said. “So it’s almost guaranteed to get to you by Wednesday or Thursday at the latest, no matter where you’re at.”
Reece recently shipped orders to California, Colorado, and Michigan. He also sent eight 14-ounce bags to U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Reece currently has eight part-time employees to enable him to set up at two places at the same time. He is working on opening a permanent location in a Food and Drug Administration-approved warehouse facility, which would enable him to hire two or three full-time workers.
Reece is planning to travel to Chicago and Cincinnati in the near future to look at industrial-size kitchen equipment.
Reece said being in business for himself has given him a new appreciation for Kentucky Proud.
“Now that I’m a local businessman, I understand the importance of doing business with other small businesses,” he said. “Doing business with small farmers, I understand the importance of helping our fellow Kentuckians out.”