Keepin it poppin ‘: The Old 97 Kettlecorn Company adapts during pandemic and earns honor – Salisbury Post


SPENCER – The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Americans to reflect on their lives and rethink their careers. Coleman Wilson was one of them.

After working everywhere from “greenhouses to warehouses,” Wilson decided earlier this year to go all out into the business his family started in 2016 – The Old 97 Kettlecorn Company. The move came after a long battle with the virus, which gave him plenty of time to think.

“I won’t say it was an easy decision, but COVID definitely made me reassess where I was and say to myself ‘Am I happy where I am or could I be more efficient by working for myself ? “” Said Coleman.

Under Coleman’s full-time leadership, and with more than a little push from the pandemic, the Spencer-based kettle corn company has adapted its business model. Old 97 is now focused on selling its products on the shelves and online, not just offering its sugary and sought-after products at weekend festivals.

No matter where the Old 97 sells its product, there will likely be high demand. The company has built a cult following over its five years in business and was recently one of 68 products nominated for the Coolest Thing Made in NC Online Contest. Joining the edging and guttering machine of Cheerwine and Power Curbers, Old 97’s kettle corn was one of three nominees representing Rowan County.

Although Old 97 did not make it to the final of the competition, being nominated was always an honor.

“It always amazes me how much everyone supports us,” Laurie Wilson, who has driven a school bus in Rowan County for almost 30 years. “We didn’t realize we had reached so many people. It’s exciting and it’s so humiliating.

It was actually Coleman’s younger sister, Taylor, who introduced the Wilson family to porridge corn over five years ago. Taylor, 25, attended college in northwestern Pennsylvania, where kettle corn is much more common.

Before Taylor came home and made a kettle corn recipe, the Wilson family was firmly in favor of traditional, less sweet and more salty popcorn. It didn’t take long for that to change.

Taylor Wilson is responsible for introducing her family to kettle corn and inspiring the founding of The Old 97 Kettlecorn Company. Photo submitted.

“When she brought it back here, we were movie popcorn people, so we didn’t know how it was going to work,” Coleman said. “After his first two attempts to get (the recipe) the recipe, it got addicting.”

The Wilson’s set out to turn their newfound passion into a business and quickly built a brand honoring their hometown’s deep-rooted connection to locomotives. The name of the company itself is a reference to the country ballad “The Wreck of Old 97”, which is sung on a mail train that crashed on the way from Virginia to Spencer. The Kettle Corn company logo is an accurate representation of the Old 97 locomotive and was designed by Spencer Alderman and locomotive enthusiast Sam Morgan.

“It’s a personal and unique thing for us,” Coleman said.

The Wilsons started out at the Father and Son produce market, where they pitched a “dilapidated” tent with homemade materials and popped their kettle corn on weekends. Things really hit the nail on the head, however, when they were vendors at the first Cheerwine Festival in 2017.

While the festival was an unequivocal success – Old 97 was “slammed” with customers – it was also a learning experience.

“After that, we decided we had to change everything quickly,” Coleman said.

The Wilson’s added a food grade table and a motorized “paddle monkey” that sits above the kettle and keeps the popcorn stirring. This work was previously done manually, often leaving whoever operated the machine exhausted and sticky.

As Old 97 made more and more festival appearances across the state, the Wilsons continued to add to their mobile setup.

“You have to crawl before you can run, so that’s what we did,” Laurie said. “Every time we did a festival and made some extra money, we would buy something else to make it a little more and a little better.”

After working many cold and windy days during Polar Express at the NC Transportation Museum, the family bought a low cost trailer in Georgia and had it modernized and painted to meet their needs. They have hauled this trailer throughout the state and region, to working events like the Bigfoot Festival in Marion and Everyday’s Day in Thomasville. While Taylor has a full-time job and can’t be at every festival, a combination of Coleman, Laurie, and her husband Danny Wilson are usually present at every event.

With Coleman Wilson in the background, a person dressed as a Bigfoot holds a few bags of kettle corn from The Old 97. The Bigfoot Festival in Marion is one of the family’s favorite places to sell kettle corn. Photo submitted.

Along the way, the Wilson’s perfected their kettle corn recipe and started adding new flavors. The Cheerwine, unsurprisingly, might be the most popular. “Apple Pie” and “Pumpkin Spice” are offered in the fall. “Jalapeno” and “Sweet Heat” have also appeared on the company’s menu.

“We’re constantly spitting out different ideas,” Laurie said.

Laurie said the company was set to push forward another “evolution” and move to more retail stores when the pandemic struck. The virus wiped out the Old 97 festival and event calendar, leaving the company without its main source of revenue.

“The pandemic has really set us back,” Coleman said. “Losing events like the Bigfoot Festival in Marion, the Cheerwine Festival, losing Polar last year, it definitely slowed us down.”

With no events to attend, the company was forced to reinvent itself.

“We’ve noticed that we can’t fully rely on our festivals, so we’ve become adamant about going into stores or ordering online,” Coleman said. “It’s a way to bridge the gap if something like this happens again.”

Since becoming Old 97’s only full-time employee, Coleman has helped the company do just that.

“It made a huge difference too,” Laurie said. “With (Coleman) working outside the kettle corn business, it was basically me doing everything and he would rush in and help out when he could. It took me a lot away.

Although several of the events Old 97 was scheduled to attend this fall have been canceled, the company’s kettle corn can now be purchased anytime from vendors across the county, including Elsie’s Ice Cream Shop in Cleveland, West Rowan Home and Garden in Mount Ulla, Veterans and Variety in Kannapolis and Robin’s Nest in the granite quarry. Coleman said they were working on a deal with a store in High Point. Kettle corn can also still be purchased online at www.theold97kettlecorncompany.com.

About Geraldine Higgins

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