Business is popping at Gourmet Kernel

ALGONQUIN – There’s popcorn, and then there’s gourmet popcorn.

For more than a year, Judy Reyes has offered kernel lovers a variety of popcorn options at her quaint shop in the Algonquin Commons, Gourmet Kernel.

The business began as a semi-retirement idea for the Carol Stream resident more than five years ago, and has quickly grown into a one-stop shop fully staffed with “popistas” to fulfill shoppers’ gourmet needs.

“Starbucks has baristas, but we have popistas,” said Reyes, who grew up in southwest Michigan. “This first year has been challenging, but I love gourmet popcorn and there’s a widespread market for this product.”

Reyes first moved to Chicago in the late 1970s and took a job working at a hotel while searching for a more permanent role with an airline at O’Hare International Airport.

She later moved back to Michigan and earned an associate’s degree in travel and tourism from Davenport College in Kalamazoo before coming back to Chicago to attend Roosevelt University for a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

After bouncing around in the computer science field, the mother of two ran her own independent computer consultant company for more than 13 years. It wasn’t until 2007 that she started researching her plan for a gourmet popcorn store.

“In the mid-1980s [gourmet popcorn stores] were disappearing from malls,” Reyes said. “Then they reappeared in these quaint destination villages. I felt like with my business sense and previous work experience, this would be a neat business to have.”

The business opened last year, and Reyes hasn’t looked back.

Gourmet Kernel offers different popcorns from the traditional kettle corn and butter flavors, to the popular O’Sweet Cheezus and Popfetti. There is also the flavor of the month, which is chosen through the company’s Taste of Business program.

The program started in January at Elgin Community College and Judson University. Each month Reyes travels to each campus with three different flavors for students to test.

The students then decide which one will be the flavor of the month, and give it a name. At the end of each cycle, whichever flavors sells the best becomes the flavor of summer, and that college gets a percentage of the sales, or at least $1,000.

“The kids have fun with it,” Reyes said. “We’re selling gourmet popcorn, not nuts and bolts. This is a way to get involved in the community.”

For the serious popcorn lover, there is also the Secret Pop Society that includes a secret flavor for those who sign up to receive the business’s newsletter. It is not advertised or displayed in the store, and has varied from sweet teriyaki with ginger to banana foster.

Besides normal foot traffic, the business also offers corporate packaging and special marketing to large groups and corporations.

Gourmet Kernel:
What: A gourmet popcorn shop offering different popcorns – from the traditional kettle corn and butter flavors, to the popular O’Sweet Cheezus and Popfetti, and the flavor of the month.
Where: 1724 S. Randall Road, Algonquin.
Information: Call 847-458-0357 or visit www.thegourmetkernel.com.