All In The Family

Sisters Amber, Erica, and Jennifer of Kernels Gourmet Popcorn talk about returning to their roots: East Nashville and their favorite childhood snack

WALK INTO KERNELS GOURMET POPCORN, AND YOU CAN EXPECT WARMTH—and it’s not coming from the popcorn popper. This is the kind of warmth that only a family-owned, made-fresh-daily, start-up business can provide.

What might you see inside? Well, a few years ago it may have been Autumn (twelve years old), running the cash register as though she’d been doing it forever. Like a pro, she’d offer samples and entertain customers, while the rest of the family ran around behind her covered in smoke, sweet scents, and smiles. Nowadays, a trip to Kernels may mean encountering up to fourteen people running on strong work ethic, coffee, and familial love.

Sisters Erica and Amber Greer studied architectural engineering at TSU, perhaps an unexpected degree choice for popcorn poppers. “Well, [Amber]
just copied me,” Erica says, lovingly patting her sister on the shoulder. “That’s what all of my friends thought too!” Amber replies. “But it isn’t true, I swear.”

It’s hard to believe that at one time Erica, Amber, and the eldest sister, Jennifer Knight, lived far apart. Amber, the youngest, was looking for a career in acting and modeling in New York City, Jennifer worked in education in Chicago, and Erica worked as an architectural engineer in Nashville. However, these sisters had too much in common to be separated for long. After a few years all three settled in Nashville due to a mutual passion for education, children, family, and . . . popcorn.

“We had the idea for Kernels even when I was in New York. I remember Skyping to talk about popcorn,” Amber laughs. “As kids, we loved to go to this popcorn store in Harding Mall with our mom.” Popcorn was a childhood tradition with these women, and, most importantly, it was something that all of them loved to eat.

“We got popcorn tins every year,” they say in unison. “That was a sign that it was the holidays. That and family.”

From the get-go, popcorn and family were intimately related. It was never a question of whether there was love and dedication for the product or each other. Once reunited in Nashville, popcorn was no longer a mere chat-piece over Skype. Kernels Southern Gourmet Popcorn (the original name) started in their parents’ house in 2008 and moved out into its own store five years later. They all agree: “It was smoky in there. We had to get out.”

The smoke didn’t bother their parents though. Rather, their mom and dad were proud supporters and loved the idea so much that they wanted to help in any way they could. According to the sisters, their dad has been the reliable foundation of their entire business venture. Jennifer says, “After getting off of third shift, Dad will swing by and pop corn for the day.” It may seem like a lot of work, but as Amber says, “Dad has always been a bit of an entrepreneur. Don’t you guys remember when he had the first idea for those moving pictures with the running waterfalls?” Jennifer and Erica laugh. “He was so mad when someone else put out the first working model instead of him. He had known it would be a hit.”

With a family-owned business, it can be difficult to separate work from leisure family time, but this family is even closer than they seem at a glance. Have you ever heard of double sisters? “You may have noticed that both of our last names are Greer—that’s not our biological name. We married brothers,” Amber says of herself and Erica. “It’s not weird at all!”

They motion to the corner of the shop where Erica’s husband is sitting. He and his daughter are relaxing in what looks like a children’s area in the middle of a shopping mall. “Our dad built that,” Jennifer tells me. The walls look like they’ve been through a variety of coats of paint, and, in its current state, it appears loved by the many children that take a load off after helping with the popcorn-related duties for the day. “Everybody has a job.” Today, that job is watching Shrek.

Off of Gallatin Pike, Kernels stands inconspicuous but extends surprisingly far back, with more than enough room for their family to filter in and out, working as they go. In fact, there is a present need of expansion. “The workload is becoming a bit much for the few hands we have right now,” Erica says. The sisters are juggling families, school, Kernels, and community, so they’d be willing to hire someone outside of the family. Erica laughs, “We’re running out of family members. We need more kids or something.”

Although family was the primary tie that brought all three sisters back home, it just so happens that Nashville is the perfect place to reach a customer base that is passionate about start-ups and gourmet products. Having spent their entire childhood in East Nashville, they love continuing to contribute and participate in the now-flourishing Nashville community.

Through donating to Wounded Warrior Project (Dad’s favorite) or the VA hospital, Kernels continues to reach out as much as the customers are reaching in. The sisters have frequent speaking engagements where they talk to students about decision-making and start-up businesses. Jennifer is still passionate about education: she now teaches kindergarten at a new charter school called Explore! and has no intention of stopping. “I think I’ll only be happy doing both,” she says. “I feel like
I have to keep teaching and helping kids, but I love Kernels.” Kernels frequently donates to their alma mater, the Stratford High track team. The sisters place emphasis on staying true to their roots—they never want to look past those who helped them get to where they are. “Oh, we forgot! We used to cook in the commercial kitchen at our church,” Jennifer exclaims, remembering the initial stages of the business. “Our church loves our popcorn!”

Although the sisters place a great deal of import on customer interaction and maintaining a strong brand, their product is equally important. With fourteen-plus flavors, various seasonal specials, and frequent customers like Vanderbilt, Grassy Knoll Movie Nights, and the Country Music Hall of Fame, Kernels’ product is ever evolving and always popped fresh daily for the best possible taste.“We sell a lot to Nashville Sweets too—they love our White Cheddar. We keep telling them we have other flavors, but they are just addicted.”

Kernels will personally deliver to your door, or they will serve popcorn to customers in store, offering “probably more samples than the customer needs,” smiles Amber. They will even personalize their packaging for special events such as weddings or large social gatherings. “This past year for Valentine’s Day we did the Date Box. It started as Date in the Box, but . . . ” she trails off into laughter, which the other two join in on.

With a carefully crafted homemade product, a wide selection of flavors that continues to expand, and a heap of Nashville pride, Kernels is the perfect place to get a quality product and genuine Southern hospitality. “We want to be a destination to see in Nashville,” says Jennifer. “And we think we can do it, because we want people to have the best. We want gourmet to taste gourmet.”


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