CULLMAN, Ala. – Neal and Holly McLeod saw their first popcorn store while on their honeymoon almost 30 years ago. Years later, while searching for new careers, they opened their own popcorn store in Cullman’s Warehouse District. Kernel Kullman will celebrate its 5-year anniversary in October, and the McLeods are loving every minute of it.
Before opening Kernel Kullman, Holly worked as a human resources consultant and Neal spent 26 years as a high school band director.
“A few years ago, we decided we didn’t want to do what our previous careers were forever so we started thinking about what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives,” said Holly. “We wanted to do something fun and we kept coming back to the idea of popcorn and how fun that would be.”
Both Holly and Neal began brainstorming about what kind of popcorn store they would have, and in 2015, they moved back to Cullman (Holly’s hometown) and Kernel Kullman was born. The name was Neal’s idea.
“Back when we were first dreaming up this idea, it just came to me,” he smiled. “I wanted Cullman in the name, whether it be with a C or a K. Then I was like, ‘A popcorn kernel,’ which everybody around here knows the founder as Colonel Cullmann. It just seemed obvious to me to use the popcorn kernel with a K, and I came up with Kernel Kullman. It has served us very well.”
The McLeods reached out to a consultant who had been in the popcorn business for 30 years and trained before coming back to Cullman and developing their flavors.
Said Holly, “We do everything in-house. All the popping and all the flavoring. Over the course of five years, we’ve probably done over 200 flavors, but we try to keep it manageable.”
Kernel Kullman usually has anywhere from 50-75 flavors at a time, and flavors are rotated. It also has a seasonal featured popcorn flavor, which is currently Strawberry Pretzel Salad.
The McLeods have specialized professional equipment and their own recipes to make the many flavors from classic to savory and sweet to decadent.
Neal explained, “The sweets, caramels and decadents, once they are coated with the sugar, candy and chocolates, it really preserves the actual popcorn for quite a while. That’s why we tell people, it’s almost indefinite, the shelf life, as long as they keep it air-tight.”
For those who might have a hard time deciding on which sweet popcorn to order, Holly suggests trying the Dorothy, the rainbow mix.
Neal added, “It’s a fun way to try the color and guess what flavor it is.”
Holly describes herself as a “savory girl,” and said her current favorite is the Barbeque Bacon. She also loves Classic Kettle because, “It’s a little sweet and a little salty.”
As for Neal, his overall favorite is Extra Buttery Caramel, or, as he refers to it, “Heaven on Earth.” He also likes the Dill Pickle from the savory category and the Black and White from the decadents.
Holly laughed about funny questions they are asked often like, “What does the Grape taste like?” She tells them, “Grape.” The most popular of the sweet category is Cotton Candy, and the favorite overall is Birthday Cake.
Besides popcorn, Kernel Kullman features craft sodas, bulk and nostalgic candies and at-home popcorn supplies.
Holly said, “We didn’t want to be just a popcorn store, because that’s limiting. We didn’t know what all we might want to do. We did have a storefront to fill. You can’t really do that with just popcorn, and we decided on making it a candy store because I love candy. We like the nostalgic feel. We kind of designed our business model on the old-time general store.”
Swing music plays in the store, and Kernel Kullman only offer glass-bottled sodas. It has well over 100 different sodas available, and that keeps growing.
Neal said, “We try to focus on the nostalgic candies and craft sodas to bring back memories for our most experienced guests and create new memories for the younger generation.”
It was hard for the McLeods to name their best-selling candy, but Holly said, “Wacky Wafers! When people discover that we have Wacky Wafers, they do like that.”
Neal has always been a fan of craft sodas and is especially proud of the Ne-hi line that was difficult to find.
He said, “‘I’m a fan of all of them. To be able to offer sodas that people may not have had out of a glass bottle in years, we are really proud to offer those.”
Kernel Kullman has many lines of sodas including the newer Jones line and older sodas such as Moxie, RC, Cheerwine and many more.
To keep with the nostalgic feel and Neal’s love of model trains, the store is filled with vintage signs and a working railroad crossing sign, traffic signal and vintage antique Coke cooler. Holly noted that being near the Depot and the train tracks was a perfect location for them.
Neal added, “We also feature what we think is Alabama’s largest gumball machine called ‘Big Mama.’ We’ll have a contest one day for people to guess how many gumballs are in it. She’s special to us.”
The store also has vintage metal signs for sale.
The McLeods recently introduced a new line of popcorn supplies. Holly said the line is “customer-driven” due to many requests. They hope to expand the line over time. They have a variety of different kernels for popping, as well as seasonings and other supplies for those hoping to make delicious popcorn at home.
The store’s website only features the popcorns and it can do custom orders, but, depending on the type, there is a minimum size that must be ordered. Holly has shipped orders to all 50 states and although Kernel Kullman doesn’t ship internationally, the McLeods said they know people have shipped their popcorn to family and friends all over the world. They also do larger orders for receptions, conferences, events and parties.
Kernel Kullman is open Monday-Friday from 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. It is located at 113 First Ave. NE in Cullman. Find out more at www.facebook.com/kernelkullman/ or https://kernelkullman.com/.
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