What’s Poppin’ at Poppin’ Joes Kettle Korn?

Those that know Joe Steffy know him as Poppin’ Joe – the CEO of a one-of-a-kind kettle corn business with production sites in both Kansas and Georgia. Joe entered the kettle corn industry solely because his father became intrigued with the process of making kettle corn on a cruise to Alaska and believed it was something Joe could do. I had the opportunity to communicate with Joe over e-mail and ask him a few questions about his inspiring business, and I can’t wait to share it with the blog!

Joe was born with Down Syndrome and was later diagnosed with autism. He is also nonverbal. In recent months, he was attending school, where an IEP teacher communicated concerns about Joe’s future to his parents. “They [told my parents] that they felt I had no work capabilities, and that I would need to attend a sheltered workshop, where I would make 25 cents an hour, and live in a group home,” Joe wrote, “That really annoyed my Dad, so he and my mom were determined to use my strengths and abilities and find work for me that I could be successful in.” With that, Poppin’ Joes Kettle Korn was born in 2005.

“[My parents] learned about Griffin-Hammis, a national organization that helps individuals with disabilities start their own businesses, and they were a huge help to us while starting Poppin’ Joes. My mom set out to learn how I could start my own business and attended classes to help with that. My dad started working with me to see if the kettle corn work would be something I could do.” Joe continued, “[My dad and I] spent weekends setting up and popping at a local Walmart to see if I could learn and master the skills needed [to make kettle corn], and also if there was a market for the product. By the time I was 18, we knew it would work, so I opted to graduate with my class and start my own business. The Kansas Council on Development Disabilities, Voc Rehab, and The PASS plan all assisted with grants or resources to help us get started financially.”

As soon as Joe discovered there was a market for kettle corn in his community, he and his dad found locations that would let them pop kettle corn outside under a tent. They set up shop at Walmarts around town and began signing up for local festivals, where Poppin’ Joes would become a regular vendor annually. “We went to Farmer’s Markets on Saturday mornings and sold there. We were eventually able to sell at retail outlets and have racks set up that we keep stocked year-round with my products, so it helps keep me busy during the cold Kansas winters,” Joe explained.

Poppin’ Joes offers five product lines of gourmet kettle corn – old fashioned, sweet and cheesy, golden caramel, white cheddar, and cinnamon. In the 15 years since his business began, Joe has been able to expand into online sales and he has even shipped his kettle corn internationally!

As for what inspired the start of Joe’s business, he told me, “My dad always says, ‘The greatest disability is low expectations.’ The low expectations that my educational team had for me in high school inspired my parents to set the bar higher. They knew me and knew that despite the limitations I may have in some areas, I had strengths in others.”

The success of Poppin’ Joes Kettle Korn has brought Joe many unique opportunities. He shared that he had the chance to speak at the US Congressional small business committee hearings in Washington DC, where he was the first person to use an augmentative device (helps individuals with limited to no speech to communicate) during those hearings. Aside from the small business committee hearings, he has been to Washington DC multiple times to help advocate for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He has even been a keynote speaker at national conferences, which he considers to be an amazing feat when you realize that he is nonverbal.

I asked Joe why it was important to him that individuals with disabilities have the opportunity to start their own businesses. He went on to explain that without his business, his life would not be what it is today. “I have choice, I have independence, I can be Poppin’ Joe, and I am admired and respected in my local community. I have a purpose, and in giving back to my community, I feel good,” Joe wrote, “Owning my own business provides me with the same opportunities as anyone else, and for me, it has changed my world. I will always advocate for small business ownership, for it allows us to use our best skills to be an active part of the community we live in.”

Joe is currently relocating from Kansas to Georgia, and his business is expanding in the process: he will be adding a Poppin’ Joes production site based in the Midwest. With the new site, Poppin’ Joes will be able to set up national contracts and produce kettle corn on a larger scale. Joe hopes to continue handling online orders and be able to travel to share his story with parents, teachers, healthcare professionals, and anyone interested in hoping to inspire others.

“I love being Poppin’ Joe. I walk taller and I smile bigger when people recognize me. My life is unique and it is my own. We never dreamt of the people I would be asked to share my story with. My teachers said I had no potential, but from the opportunities I have had, we know they were wrong.”

Keep defying expectations, Joe – and all of us at 321 Coffee will be here in Raleigh cheering you on!

Interested in purchasing some Poppin’ Joes Kettle Korn? Click here to check out his Facebook page, which also includes a link to Joe’s website.

All photos courtesy of Joe Steffy.