Launching a successful business takes preparation, hard work and, quite frankly, a bit of good luck.
Janelle Doyle knows this all too well.
In May, she quit her job at Wells Fargo to focus on running her startup — a gourmet popcorn business called It’s Poppin! Gourmet Kettle Korn.
Her husband, Desmen Milligan, a chef by training, also has a hand in the business.
It’s Poppin!, operating from the 7th Street Public Market, offers a variety of sweet and savory flavors — classic caramel korn and popcorn flavored to taste like cotton candy. But it also offers a few varieties a customer might not expect, flavors such as apple pie, mac n’ cheese and her best seller, fried chicken.
Doyle, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in business management, said starting her own business was the best career move of her life.
“It was really a dream of ours to stop working for someone else,” she said, “to just pursue our dream, to pursue our passion and do what we want to do.”
Doyle has long nurtured a passion for food.
Before they opened the popcorn stand, she and her husband once dreamed of owning a food truck, one that sold food native to their hometowns of Pittsburg and Cleveland. Menu items would have included Polish Boys, Porgies and giant fish sandwiches on kaiser rolls.
“We really wanted to bring the flavors from home to Charlotte,” Doyle said. “But it was really a matter of my budget, and my food truck was not in the budget.”
At Wells Fargo, she worked as a sales analyst. Her job required her to draft proposals, meet with clients and process orders — not exactly the stuff of entrepreneurial dreams.
So after almost 20 years, she decided to quit. By then, she had already gotten her gourmet popcorn business off the ground.
“I was setting up these products and services for other small businesses,” Doyle said. “It just got me to thinking, ‘why am I doing this not for myself?’”
A chef’s influence
Milligan, a culinary arts graduate, worked in restaurants as a line cook all the way up to executive chef in cities including Cleveland, Baton Rogue and Charlotte. And though he plays a limited role in day-to-day operations of their joint business, his influence is felt more behind the scenes where new products and flavors are born.
The thing about popcorn, Doyle said, is that it’s a “blank slate.”
“You can season it to whatever you want, and with my husband being a chef, he decided it was a great idea for us to venture into the popcorn industry.”
So in May, the couple started It’s Poppin! from a cart outside 7th Street Public Market. (They also did pop-up shops at local fairs and festivals.)
Doyle said she wanted to operate the business outside at first so that they could pop fresh batches of corn on site. But after talking to Chris Clouden, executive director of 7th Street Public Market, she decided, for safety reasons, against bringing her propane cooker near the public facility.
That meant the couple had to get up at 6 o’clock each morning to pop all the corn they would need that day.
That’s when luck stepped in
Less than a month after they launched, Doyle sent an email to Clouden asking if there was room inside the market.
“When I worked at Wells, I would come down here on my lunch break, occasionally,” Doyle recalled. “I just figured this would be an awesome place to set up my kettle corn stand.”
Clouden calls the market “a small business incubator.”
“We like to provide an opportunity for folks to sell their product and support local businesses,” he said.
As fate would have it, Clouden knew of a vendor who was about to vacate a space right near the front door of the market.
“Once he told me the space was at the front door, I immediately jumped on that,” Doyle said. “I think this is prime real estate where I’m at right now, and so far, so good.”
Since moving inside, the company has become more profitable, Doyle said.
“People love my product,” she said. “I have customers that come back to see me daily sometimes.”
On a recent weekday, Doyle was passing out free samples of her gourmet corn as she greeted customers.
It’s Poppin! also serves candy apples and fruit water made in store.
As for the popcorn, she said: “We wanted to do flavors no one had ever seen before… We’ll think about it say, ‘Hey, the holidays are coming up; let’s make one with chocolate and candy corn.’”
In early November, Doyle said she was testing popcorn flavored to taste like turkey, and another flavored to taste like dressing. She envisions selling a holiday three-pack — fried chicken, mac n’ cheese and stuffing — packaged in a decorative tin.
Longer-term, Doyle said she wants to someday sell franchises in her business. She also hopes to expand her product line to include more sweet treats, such as cotton candy, funnel cakes and donuts.
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