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[Earth Eats theme music]

Kayte Young: From WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana, I'm Kayte Young and this is Earth Eats.

Virginia Githiri: Ha, ha. Now, I love food. Let the people know. Let the people in the back know.

Virginia Githiri: Hey, I love food. I plan vacations around the top food spots, so I love food, but I just don't enjoy cooking.

Kayte Young: This week on the show we hear the story about a local business, "PopKorn Kernels with a Twist". We speak with the owner, Dr. Virginia Githiri about what motivates her to run her own food business, since she doesn't really like to cook. That story is just ahead. Stay with us.

Kayte Young: Thanks for listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young.

Kayte Young: I love to cook and I especially love to bake. I get a kick out of making delicious things to eat, but I cannot imagine translating that enjoyment into a business. It's a completely different skill set which I do not possess, so I'm always curious when I talk to owners what drove them to start a food business. I've done a whole series called "Taking the Leap", exploring exactly that question. In the case of Dr Virginia Githiri it is even more puzzling. She is a Professor at Indiana University in the School of Public Health and she is the owner of "PopKorn Kernels with a Twist". You might have seen it . It is that adorable shop on the corner of Fourth and College in downtown Bloomington, in that store front where the hobby shop used to be.

Kayte Young: I had been meaning to check out the place ever since I first saw the "open" sign. I was biking home one afternoon, saw the sandwich board out front and since I was not in a hurry I decided to stop. I was greeted by the owner and a couple of key staff members who were packaging popcorn behind the counter. The aroma of freshly popped corn filled the air. They keep a popper on hand at the shop for fresh servings of popcorn, but I learned that the majority of their product is made "off site" at One World Kitchen Share. They produce a huge variety of flavors from Simply Salted to Buffalo Cheddar, to Karamel Pecan, Praline Salted White Chocolate popcorn. We made a plan to meet up at a later date so I could learn more about their popcorn and the story behind the business called "PopKorn Kernels with a Twist". Oh, and popcorn is spelled with a "K". When I arrived at the kitchen Fred Bennett was already measuring out the ingredients for a batch of Karamel.

Fred Bennett: Today I am preparing classic Karamel Korn, classic Karamel Korn.

Kayte Young: So, in the kettle you are getting butter?

Fred Bennett: Yes, butter.

Kayte Young: This is real butter.

Fred Bennett: Yes, correct.

Kayte Young: Brown sugar and some Karo syrup. Alright.

Fred Bennett: We are going to heat it up and then go from there.

Kayte Young: Is the popcorn is already popped or is she going to pop some more?

Fred Bennett: Yes I have some and I am going to pop some more as well.

Kayte Young: How does it go? You have got the popcorn popped and then you make this Karamel syrup and that is just done in a pot on the stove.

Fred Bennett: Correct and then we add to the popcorn, stir it up and bake it.

Kayte Young: So it gets coated with the syrup, but then to get that crunch on the outside you have got to do the baking?

Fred Bennett: Yes.

Kayte Young: I know you guys have a lot of different flavors and recipes. Some of them are sweet, some savory. Some of them have these kind of coatings but some of them are just spices. So how do you go about developing a new recipe?

Fred Bennett: In the immortal words of Dr. Virginia Githiri, the owner, "popcorn is a blank canvas". She has a very distinct palate and she comes up with these flavors. If she says "I got a great flavor popcorn. It tastes like grapes" [LAUGHS] If it doesn't taste like grapes it will not get on the shelf. We want to make sure that it is what we say it is.

Kayte Young: Are you here for the full day, cranking out the popcorn?

Fred Bennett: That is it, that's what we do, just crank it out.

Virginia Githiri: I remember one night when I was re-testing the concept and before I had added a big staff, Jeff was down here. He was like "what the **** are you doing?" I was concerned the caramels didn't look perfect but he said, "it's delicious, it's artisanal, it's hand made, it is not going to look commercially prepared, every kernel's not going to be perfectly covered." The reality is that even though I knew it tasted great, I think sometimes people are very visually aware. If it doesn't look like it comes from a factory we are ignorantly going to think it is probably not good. I had to get out of my head in thinking that it had to look like each kernel was covered. This is truly gourmet, we use real butter, so due to the richness of it you really do not want every single kernel covered to capacity. We would all be like, "oh my god". Some people can each rich stuff but it can be really, really rich.

Kayte Young: Yes, it is like your mouth wants a break from the completely covered kernel.

Virginia Githiri: Yes, you want to make sure the experience is completely enjoyable. There is a flavor that I developed called "Dr. G's special". I like the karamel but I like it with plain, because I love plain popcorn. I consider myself a popcorn purist, if that is a thing. I enjoy adding a couple of handfuls of karamel to the gourmet circle kernels that we use, but I typically wouldn't be one to eat a whole bag of Karamel. Even though I love it, it is too rich for me. Karamel is our second top seller. Our first top seller is Midwest Delight, the Karamel and Cheese.

Kayte Young: There is also the science to just making the karamel. I know that just candy making has such a delicate range of temperatures.

Fred Bennett: Yes, you do have to have it at a certain temperature or it is going to be a little too done or not done enough. [LAUGHS]

Kayte Young: I bet you have experienced both of those?

Fred Bennett: Yeah, I mean, I mean yeah.

Virginia Githiri: I would say Fred is a lot more patient and accurate than I am, which is why I am grateful that he has been making the karamel for years now. He is a lot more attentive to detail. I barely remember the recipe and sometimes my attention is drawn to other places. There have been times when I have had to literally throw into the garbage five gallons of karamel corn, because I messed it up. When you consider the cost of the ingredients, ooh, it is not a good thing. But, you do what you have to do. Like Fred mentioned, it is true that I am very intentional about what we're serving, what we're putting out there, what is on our menu and what it tastes like, and I always ask for customer feedback. I am grateful that people are kind and they will say, "ooh, that really wasn't my favorite". There are some people who are really close to me who will say, "Yep that was terrible" and I appreciate that.

Kayte Young: You need to develop, yes.

Virginia Githiri: Yes, you appreciate that honesty from people who are in your circle. It helps us to be better.

Fred Bennett: There are people that let us know if it is not on point.

Virginia Githiri: Yes, our partners, they do not mind.

Kayte Young: Case in point, Dr. G had started a batch of popcorn in the popper and because she is out of practice, Fred does most of the day-to-day popcorn preparation, she didn't get it quite right.

Virginia Githiri: Oh god, garbage can.

Fred Bennett: It is a little easier for me, I can eyeball it. I've been doing it for so long I can just look and tell the amount that I need. [LAUGHS] As she said I have more attention to detail, just a little bit.

Virginia Githiri: [LAUGHS] You need that when you are doing this, especially the Karamel etc. Even though I can cook, I let the world know I do not enjoy it at all.

Fred Bennett: But, she does a great job.

Virginia Githiri: I do not enjoy it. I have older aunts and uncles who are now passed on, but sometime they would call me and say, "hey, you cooking anything? I would answer "absolutely not". My close intimate friends were shocked beyond belief when I started a food company. They were like, "You don't even cook". I still don't. Sometimes you may have a desire to do something but it doesn't mean that you have to have all the skill set. That sounds crazy but there are people who can be extremely integral in your process. Fred is one of those. I've had other people before him... [SOUND OF POPCORN POPPING]

Kayte Young: Fred's batch of popcorn was popping full force, the Karamel was on the stove, and Dr. G and I stepped into the conference room at "One World" to have a more focused conversation. That is coming up after a short break. Stay with us.

Kayte Young: Kayte Young here. This is Earth Eats.

Virginia Githiri: I am Virginia Githiri and I own "PopKorn Kernels with Twist" in Bloomington, Indiana.

Kayte Young: I sat down with Virginia in the conference room at "One World Kitchen Share" where she rents commercial kitchen space for her popcorn business. I started by asking her to tell her story.

Virginia Githiri: I am a native of the State of Indiana. I was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. My father immigrated to the United States from Kenya when he was 16. He got a citizenship in his 20's, met my mom in College and they got married when he was 30. He was in finance, my mother was in education.

Kayte Young: And is your mom also from Indiana?

Virginia Githiri: My mom was from Alabama. She had been diagnosed in her 30's with a very severe form of lupus and she passed away when she was 46. Both my parents are deceased, they were amazing. They had been married 25 years before she passed. My father never re-married. I am grateful that I come from a really close knit family. I have two best friends and some really close friends who I consider family. A few of them I met in College. I am very close to the people in my inner circle. I guess I can say I had a fun and loving childhood. I excelled academically, particularly in the sciences and the math. I thought I wanted to do the Medical School thing so I came to Indiana University and majored in biology. After about 65 hours of math and science, I got bored. I think it was my last organic chemistry lab when I said "why am I doing? This is so boring".

Virginia Githiri: I ended up getting my degree in another school sphere, "Public and Environmental Affairs", applied for graduate school, did an MPH, worked for a few years, did an MBA.

Kayte Young: What is an MPH?

Virginia Githiri: MPH is Masters of Public Health and the concentration is education. I started another business in my 20's, a print shop downtown Bloomington, which is a whole another story for another episode. I am a full time faculty member in the School of Public Health at Indiana University. My PhD is also from Indiana University. I teach courses that focus on populations and their health statuses. I try to convey to my students that every population or group, even if it is subjectively or self defined, comes to the table with a different set of circumstances that impact their health. You can define yourself in a group; people who are living in Bloomington, middle aged white women, educated black women, but within those definitions, whether they are biology or subjectively driven or self selected, there are still different sets of circumstances.

Virginia Githiri: I try to convey to the students that you need to look at each population, each individual, as an individual. It is not a one size fits all, not when it comes to health and wellness.

Kayte Young: Here's the question that comes to mind for me. You're successful, you have a PhD, you have a faculty position at a major university, why do you want to start a popcorn business?

Virginia Githiri: [LAUGHS] There are a couple of reasons. It is innate in me to be an entrepreneur. My dad worked in finance, was employed at a major corporation as an accountant and had people under him. However he always had other businesses. As a kid I picked that up from my parents and so unconsciously it was in me that I can work a full time job, have a family, do other social things and still have a thriving business. My parents always told us "you can do anything you want, there are no limits for you".

Kayte Young: Are you doing this because it's interesting, challenging and fun for you to figure out a business? You said you don't love cooking so the fact that you are doing a food business does not mean you love food.

Virginia Githiri: [LAUGHS] No, I love food and I plan vacations around the top food spots. I just don't enjoy cooking. I think it is stressful. I get so stressed going to the grocery store, having to get ingredients. However, it does not mean that I cannot have a successful business in an area where I don't thrive. The secret is to find people who you partner with, who can catch your vision and who are willing and able to help the business to thrive. You pay them well, and you support them. The energy has been in the space of my company where I have been fortunate and blessed to be able to find people who are like, "this is so cool", and they absolutely thrive at it.

Virginia Githiri: Yes, I come up with recipes and ideas, I can do it, but it is just not my wheel house, it is not my preference. Having people that can actually run with that vision is important, because a lot of business owners struggle with that. They struggle to release their hands. If you find someone that you trust, there is an understanding there.

Kayte Young: I also think it is an important point because a lot of people start a business because, for example, they are passionate about something. I love to bake pies and everybody is always saying, "oh you have got to start something". You know what? I like baking pies and I would like to continue liking baking pies. I do not know anything about running a business, so I am not going to do it. Maybe if somebody partnered with me who really knew how to run a business and said, "you bake the pies and I'll run the business", I would consider it. What happens is, people get into it because they love doing a thing, but they don't know how to run a business. It sounds like you are the opposite. You have the ideas and the business skills, you just need the people who can execute.

Virginia Githiri: Yes, who can execute the product, that is the thing. I love being creative and coming up with the weird flavors and they come to me in my sleep. Literally I wake up and have an epiphany and I am like, "oh my god". I will tell the team who are like "that's awesome". I'll fabricate the trial and then we'll just duplicate the process. Do I know how to do everything? Yes, of course I do, it just takes me a little more time and it's not very enjoyable. I do think people take a passion and are like, "Oh I should start a business". Part of me, as well as when I see a gap, I am like "oh that doesn't exist here, so this could be really profitable".

Kayte Young: So is that how you came up with popcorn?

Virginia Githiri: I came up with popcorn because I love it. There is a major company in Chicago and I did one of those "stand in line for two hours to get the popcorn" and I thought, I want this in Bloomington. It takes time but eventually we'll have that, I can see us having people around the corner wherever our store front is located. I wanted to make a similar model, I knew that the market was open here and I love popcorn. However that takes time, it just doesn't happen overnight. Despite this, I can't see myself for 45 years making Karamel. I see the business established, but me physically doing it? No. For some people that is their desire and I respect that. I mean, if you're a pie maker and you want to make pies for 50 years, blessed do it.

Virginia Githiri: Listen, I do not want to be stirring up caramel for 30 years, but I want the business to continue, and that may sound arrogant to some, it is not. You need to know, to be able to attract people to your team who can do it, that see the vision, that are excited. In times when I need to, if the staff went down to zero, could I maintain product coming out? Yes I could because I know how to do it. Again, it is a matter of knowing your strengths and playing to those.

Kayte Young: Can you tell me the story of getting the popcorn business off the ground?

Virginia Githiri: There has been ebbs and flows. The quick and short of it is that, originally in 2007 I had the vision, went to a Super-bowl Party, people were like "this is amazing", and I thought hmm.

Kayte Young: What do you mean "you went to a Super-bowl party?"

Virginia Githiri: I went to a Super-bowl party in 2007 with a bunch of 75-80 people. We were all supposed to bring some snacks. I brought popcorn because I love popcorn. At this time I hadn't even thought about starting the company.

Kayte Young: Was it just plain popcorn or did you do something to do?

Virginia Githiri: Yes I brought chocolate, blueberry, caramel and I don't remember what other flavor, I think maybe cheese. The bowls were empty as if someone had licked them clean. I thought "what is going on here, my god". People were asking who had brought the popcorn and if I had extra because they wanted to buy it. As an entrepreneur I thought "Oh, hold on, wait a minute, okay, this is something". I looked into what it took to have a food business in Monroe County and recognized that you had to be in a State approved commercial kitchen. At the time this one was not here so I went to Madison, Indiana. I drove all the way to Madison, Indiana, once, sometimes twice a week, paid by the hour and produced.

Virginia Githiri: I started a little website, was doing face-to-face selling, then found a store front downtown. It really was not sufficient for me to continue making the caramel there because the oven was not right, and as the lessee on a five year lease I would have had to pay to upgrade the kitchen. I thought "uh-uh", but one thing led me to a side bar. Communication is key, I learned that from my parents, especially my dad. You have got to communicate because sometimes things go awry and it is not helpful to hide. You may have to late pay a bill or you do not have the supplies you need. Listen, I need to sleep at night, so I told the landlord that I was not going to be able to do the five year lease. I said "I don't know what your position is. I would appreciate it if you would just let me out of it without consequence, but here are the issues", and he said "No problem".

Kayte Young: So at that point you said I need to step back?

Virginia Githiri: Yes, I don't have all the resources I need, I am draining myself. This was at the top of 2009 I believe when I stepped away from it, but the idea kept coming to me. 2016 it was so heavy, and so I said "let me try it again" I did the same thing, talked to the Health Department who said "Oh that would be great, we remember you, so good luck". They gave me Jeff's information and the ball has been rolling ever since. October 2016, I restarted by myself, no staff. I started the website again just to retest the concept, see if there was interest. I had major surgery in November, started back up in February 2017 and went into store front on Kirkwood, into the Mall later that year. We were in the Mall two years and then ended up coming out of the Mall. Moved downtown, but we've been growing and going ever since.

Virginia Githiri: We are the popcorn producer for Indiana University. We are also in the private suites at the Memorial stadium for which we are very grateful. So yes, the website is doing better, we have a subscription plan.

Kayte Young: You said you are the major popcorn supplier for Indiana University. That seems like a pretty stable and large contract.

Virginia Githiri: It is. It depends what's going on with university. With Covid we weren't producing popcorn for Indiana University anymore [LAUGHS] No, let me correct. There were times when they were purchasing for staff or for random different things, but it wasn't the size that we were used to. When we first came on board, we were producing for the auditorium, the ballet, the Musical Arts Center, and pretty much any event that catering needed popcorn for. In one week they might only need 20, the next week they might need 1,000. If they want popcorn they reach out to us, because we are an Indiana University licensed vendor as well. We have a couple of names that are licensed that we pay Royalty for. Crimson Drizzle is one and Crimson Karamel is the other and then I have a sticker that has the Indiana University trident on it that I designed. We have a really good relationship with Indiana University and I am so grateful, it has been fantastic.

Kayte Young: I also notice that you do fund raising popcorn, so can you tell me a little bit about that?

Virginia Githiri: Yes. We do fund raisers and there are organizations that ask if we can support their fund raising efforts and we do. We create a singular web page for that organization and they either give the QR code or the URL to their patrons and then they order just as if they would order from our regular website. It's one particular size, a few flavors and then the extent of time that the fund raiser is open they can order. When that's over then we have our period of time when we create the orders. We give them to the fund raising Chair, or whomever, and they distribute them. So just like any girl scout cookie, or anything like that, we have a very similar operation. That's separate from our main popcorn thing. It's so it's a separate entity.

Kayte Young: Right, so like if there is a soccer team or something can they have like a little order for them and go around and ask their grandparents and friends?

Virginia Githiri: Yes, absolutely, we can do the brochure.

Kayte Young: Or, if maybe the kid goes around and fills out the order form but then the parent uploads the order to the website?

Virginia Githiri: Yes absolutely, that way as well, but we try to make it accessible because everybody is not comfortable, or are not necessarily tech savvy. I think it is a good way to give back to the community. We had a school this past summer who saw my spot on "Wish TV". As soon as this person watched it she called and said, "Hey, can we do fund-raising with you guys?" and it has been a wonderful collaboration.

Kayte Young: The store front that you are currently in, can you tell me a little bit about that? It's a dreamy little spot.

Virginia Githiri: Yes. I always wanted that spot, like forever. Every time I would drive by I would say, "oh my god, that's where PopKorn should be", and so when I knew we were moving out of the Mall I called a Realtor friend of mine. I was like, "hey I'm looking for a place, this is what I really need or want" and he said to me, "that place on the corner of Fourth and College, you need that. I have always seen you guys there". I am like "Oh my god, I've always seen us there too, ooh my god". He gave me the name of the person who owns it and we communicated and then, yes, we are there now.

Kayte Young: So do you do some popping of popcorn there?

Virginia Githiri: Yes, we can do small production there and we also package there, which is fantastic. That saves us timing in this big major kitchen here, which has been amazing to us. This is just a dream.

Kayte Young: It sounds like having a commissary kitchen in town kind of made it possible?

Virginia Githiri: Oh absolutely. When that thought was in me to re-start, I am grateful that this was here, because at my age and with what else I was doing, driving to Madison, Indiana would have been a no go. It would not have made sense to do that back and forth, so I am grateful for "One World." The Health Department approved us to do packaging and pop some on site at the store front, so that's great because we know that it is fresh, but it is so interesting, people will come in and say "do you guys have any fresh popcorn?". I am like, "this was just made like two days ago". Shelf life for popcorn is six months plus.

Kayte Young: Yes and so you just need to make sure you have got it packaged in something air-tight and then it stays fresh.

Virginia Githiri: Absolutely. I was very intentional about selecting bags that are odor proof, tear proof, tamper resistant, because our popcorn is also in other spaces. For instance, we are in the Visitors Center, we have been in three different store fronts in the past. You need something that has a little bit of shelf life but that's not going to last forever because that is full of preservatives and we don't have that. However, we do have a bit of a shelf life, so that is really important to me.

Kayte Young: I do think that there is something charming and romantic, especially if you are walking by the store, you want fresh popped popcorn.

Virginia Githiri: There is some nostalgia I think that goes with it, and, oh gosh, I love popcorn out of the popcorn machine that day. So good. Sometimes I sneak in the back door and say "I just want a bag of popcorn guys" [LAUGHS] So, yes, it's good to be able to do some stuff down there.

Kayte Young: Yes and I would just think it draws people into the shop maybe a little bit more. So, are you getting some walk-in traffic there?

Virginia Githiri: Oh absolutely, yes, which is great. I mean I think that those windows are amazing in that space, it catches peoples eye. A lot of times on a Saturday I'll go and just kind of sit and watch people walk by. They'll look in the window, they'll look inside and then they will maybe just come inside. They are like "oh my god, the smell brought me in". Now people were saying that on Saturday because we also have a light Karamel Pop that we're able to do in the kettle, and the smell of it is so intoxicatingly delicious. You cannot not walk in. I mean you're just like, it almost unconsciously draws you in. And, the butter popcorn, I mean you can just smell it. So, yes, we have some walk-in traffic.

Kayte Young: I am speaking with Virginia Githiri of "PopKorn Kernels with a Twist". After a short break we will hear about how she manages the work life balance with a full time position at Indiana University and a thriving small business.Stay with us.

Kayte Young: Kayte Young here. This is Earth Eats. My guest is Virginia Githiri. She is the owner of a small local business, "PopKorn Kernels with a Twist" and she's also a Professor in the School of Public Health at Indiana University. I wanted to find out how she does it all.

Kayte Young: So, how are you able to manage? Tell me kind of a day in the life?

Virginia Githiri: Oh my god, do you really want to know that. Aah.

Kayte Young: It's like, think of one of your days when you are kind of doing everything, what does it look like?

Virginia Githiri: So I get up. I am very anal about my prayer and meditation time. There are rare days that I miss that. I do have a prayer and meditation room in my home. 95.9% of the time I am having an hour for myself to do that, because I am so hyperactive, my brain is always going, that if I don't have forced time to be quiet, Lord have mercy, it would just be terrible. I would not have any centering time, and the personality that I have, I have to force it. So, that is my morning, and then I just go. I usually will look at my agenda the night before to have in mind what the expectations are. Sometimes I'll go, go, go, go during the day. "Go" meaning either working Indiana University stuff or I might pop into the shop and say hello to them. In the evening I work on business related stuff. I know it sounds crazy, but I can do that kind of mindlessly depending on what it is.

Kayte Young: This takes a different kind of brain space than your academic work.

Virginia Githiri: Yes. Usually I'll do business related stuff late at night, maybe between 9:30 and 11:30. I'll be watching something funny and working on whatever, responding to emails etc. Then, I do sing at Sherwood Oaks. I sing like once a month typically on the stage in the Worship Team, I lead, and so there is a rehearsal for that the week that I am singing. Then, there are three services so I am there Sunday morning at 7:00 am and I am usually leaving by like 1:00 o'clock. However, I take time on Saturdays for me. So, I may pop into the shop, but even my team knows, they are like V is not available on Saturdays. It is important to take time for me and my circle. On Sundays I usually do the same thing. I will do a little work sometime on Sunday but as I get older I have been more intentional about that.

Virginia Githiri: When I was younger, oh god, I would go seven days a week. I literally would only take a break if I was away from here and on vacation. I am one of those ones that can get four hours sleep a night, that's just what I have done all my life, and so I have to force myself to stop and take a break.

Kayte Young: How many days is the shop open?

Virginia Githiri: The shop is open five days, from Tuesday through Saturday. For holiday we may add a day, possible a few hours on a Sunday when we get close to holiday, but I really prefer to give my team off Sunday. Whether they want to worship, go to a church with their friend or just sit on their porch with a nice drink and chill out, whatever, it does not matter. We all have to have a break.

Kayte Young: How many employees do you have?

Virginia Githiri: Two full time and then a few part times I can call on if I need to.

Kayte Young: Are there sometimes events or things going on downtown where you are kind of really on?

Virginia Githiri: Yes, when Lotus was happening we were busier and typically when football games happen we are busier. Even though we are not far from campus in terms of walking distance, we are not right in the center of campus, people are still walking around and down there, so our business definitely picks up during those times. Then there are festivals and events that we've been invited to. We have been able to take some of those less though because we are so busy in our own stuff that it is hard to commit. If I had a staff of 20 it would be easy, because we could produce what we needed and get greater volume. But again, as a small business owner you have to be wise. There's ebbs and flows in business and where it is my dream and wish that we would continue to accelerate in our sales, you know go up 10, 15, 20% every year, sometime you have to think, okay what is this really going to look like, what are the implications?

Virginia Githiri: Since wages are your greatest expense what you don't want to do is get in a place where you have hired a bunch of people and then you are like, "oh god, how can I pay them?" I am a sole owner business. I have not got a major business loan, it has been my own capital. So you have to be wise about your decisions.

Kayte Young: How is it going? Are you making some profit?

Virginia Githiri: Yes, I am definitely at a point, thankfully, where the business income is paying for the business expenses. Like I said, I didn't go to some bank and get a million dollar loan or even a $25,000 loan, that has not happened for me. From 2016 I have spent my own money. Grateful that I had it to do, but it was a substantial sacrifice. Often times people will ask, "would you do it all again, the pain and everything?" I would do it again, not with the pain, except those challenges, but I would do it again. I am grateful that for a couple of years now we are at a point where the actual business revenues are taking care of the business expenses.

Kayte Young: Okay, so summer of 2020, the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, the month of demonstrations and awareness campaigns that followed, it's been referred to some as a racial reckoning, and I feel like this movement has a lot of dimensions to it; calls to defund the police but also calls to support black owned businesses and to have an awareness of that. I was wondering if you have noticed, especially locally, of people like seeking out. "Okay I want to support black owned businesses". Have you noticed that?

Virginia Githiri: Absolutely. So shout out to the Bloomington Foodies page. I had no idea, and one of my girlfriends, she texted me and she was like "hey, do you care if I mention the name of your business on the Bloomington Foodies page?" I said "Girl, I don't know what that is but sure, of course. What? Absolutely, and thank you for thinking of me". Well, unbeknown to me until I logged on, they had made a call, "who are the black businesses?" and of course it was around that fever pitch. There have been many fever pitched times in our country we know, with respect to race and racism and discrimination, all of these things, for all marginalized groups, but I had no idea what the Bloomington Foodies page was. I had not idea what they were doing, but it literally warmed by heart. When I looked on there, people were saying, "I love popcorn, oh my god that's my favorite place. Oh I just was there yesterday., their flavors are so amazing, the owner is so sweet" and I had no idea.

Kayte Young: Did the Bloomington Foodies make a list of black owned businesses?

Virginia Githiri: They did, yes, and then they would buy stuff and take pictures and shout it out. They were doing that before, I just had no idea, and so you don't know who is paying attention. We were grateful because we were still in the pandemic. We have something on our website that is "order on-line and pick up at store" and we were doing a very compromised number of days open, a very small amount of hours, but kerbside pick-up. Somebody would call in and Fred would run their popcorn out to them, and yes, we definitely accelerated in sales during that space of time, and people have still been our customers. The local love here is crazy, like it is pretty amazing.

Kayte Young: Also what you said about the pandemic, I think there was an awareness that a lot of businesses are struggling and that just because of the systemic racism and years of discrimination, black owned businesses might be some of the ones who maybe are not going to make it. It wasn't just a racial reckoning and it was also small business.

Virginia Githiri: Oh absolutely, and I think that is sometimes lost. Listen, if I am being honest, there's always going to be a racial struggle because there's such strong opinions about these things and that is always going to persist. Sorry, "Hallmark movie" is not real. I think we can each do our part individually to make sure that we're doing what we can to be the best version of ourselves, to be a good human. Generally speaking we are going to have these struggles, that's just the nature of life. I think that supporting people you know who are working hard, irrespective of their race, their gender, sexual orientation, religion, whatever, that's human. That's what we should do.

Virginia Githiri: So definitely I have to say the local love has been incredible. I mean, the sharing of "you should go to this spot, I love it, it's my favorite". I was literally brought to tears just looking at the comments, because you never know who's watching you, and that makes us work harder. That makes my team want to make sure that the bag is not full of seeds and kernels, but it actually has popcorn in there. Making sure that it is flavorful, it's fresh. If there is anything you don't like let us know, we will replace it, you don't have to pay. I'm saying, because that makes you go harder. It's like a little kid who rides their bike for the first time and their parents are like "Good job Virginia". It makes you so excited that you did a good job, that you want to do more so that you can get that "Good job" again. That is the feeling we have and I think a lot of the local businesses in town hopefully also have felt that.

Kayte Young: What is your favorite part about having this business?

Virginia Githiri: Providing economic opportunity for other people. I believe that we all have a whole bunch of gifts and talents. The difference in someone that does and someone that doesn't is that the person that doesn't do maybe doesn't know. They don't recognize what they have that can be shared. I recognize what I have, that the talents and gifts that I have are not just for me. They are for me in the sense that there's enjoyment that comes with it. Yeah, I'm not an idiot, one day I want to be a multi-billion dollar popcornaire. Tell the people in the back, if I keep working it will happen right? Maybe one day.

Virginia Githiri: So that is one of the focuses of course, this is not a non-profit organization, so I would be a liar if I sat here and said I don't want to make any money. That's a lie, I do want to make money. I wouldn't go so hard if I didn't. But I also am providing mentor-ship, economic opportunity, connections in the community and that brings me joy. There has to be more than just some intrinsic reward. There has got to be some internal "my bank account is building". For some people there is not, and I respect that to. I am just not that person that can just keep it all to myself. My parents bought me my first car, and when I was thinking about a second car my daddy would always say, make sure you get a car with four doors, so if somebody needs a ride you can give them a ride. He told me that as a teenager and I remembered that. Just that level of selflessness is something we need a little more of.

Virginia Githiri: So everything we do, even though there may be great financial gain for me one day, the part that I love is showing my employees that it is possible to be somebody black and not have...I mean we were considered middle, high income black people, we did alright, but I didn't have two million dollars in the bank when I started this. I started pretty much from nothing with my savings, with some of my retirement. I just scrapped because I wanted to do it. So my staff sees that and they are like "it is possible". Like, yes, sometimes you are going to be in the belly of hell because Miss Virgina, she loves Jesus but she cuss a little too. It is difficult sometimes, it is hard, but they have seen this and for them, they have said, "I am so glad I am seeing this, thank you for sharing, thank you for mentoring me".

Virginia Githiri: I think that is part of what really brings me joy, is not necessarily the future fiscal rewards, but what it is doing for the community, what it is doing for other people. It is so cool. I want people to be able to create their own businesses and have other streams of things that they do, other streams of income and continue to perpetuate opportunities for other people. I absolutely love that part of it, it is so wonderful and I am grateful to be able to do it.

Kayte Young: I asked Virginia if she had any final words of wisdom.

Virginia Githiri: If you have an idea for something, reach out to find a resource that can help you. There are people who are willing to sit down and talk to you, but you have to ask. Be okay with messing up. Listen, you saw me with the popcorn pot struggling, because I'm like, "I don't know what I've done, out of practice, how do you do pop this stuff" [LAUGHS] Sometimes you mess up and it is okay. I don't believe that perfection exists, it just doesn't. I think you should work hard to be your best. But what is perfection? If you are looking for perfection, for everything to be in place before you start, you will never start.

Kayte Young: That's a good note to end on [LAUGHS]. Thank you so much for talking with me.

Virginia Githiri: You are welcome. Thank you for asking. It's our pleasure. I really appreciate you thinking of us.

Kayte Young: That was Virginia Githiri, also known as Dr. "G" owner of "PopKorn Kernels with a Twist" in downtown Bloomington, Indiana. You can order popcorn from anywhere in the US and you will find a link to their website on our website,

Kayte Young: We are sharing some special recipe videos this week on the Earth Eats You Tube channel. It is a series we are calling "Scraping the bowl" and it is all about Holiday Cookies. We have ginger ducks with a juniper glaze and thumb prints with redcurrant jelly. Search for Earth Eats on You Tube and be sure to subscribe so you don't miss any. Still to come we have recipe videos for marble Tahini thins and a delicious freezer cookie featuring dark chocolate and toasted pecan. You can find it all when you search for Earth Eats on You Tube. That's it for our show this week. Thanks for listening and we will see you next time.

Renee Reed: The Earth Eats team includes Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Paynton Knobeloch, Josephine McRobbie, Daniella Richardson, Harvest Public Media and me, Renee Reed.

Kayte Young: Special thanks this week to Dr. Virginia Githiri, Fred Bennett, everyone at "PopKorn Kernels with a Twist" and everyone at "One World Kitchen Share".

Renee Reed: Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey. Additional music on the show comes to us from the artists at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our Executive Producer is John Bailey.

Fred Bennett and Virginia Githiri stand behind a stainless steel table in a commercial kitchen with a popcorn machine to the left. Both are wearing shirts with Popkorn logos and both are looking at the camera.

Fred Bennett pays attention to details in the kitchen, business owner Virginia Githiri pays attention to everything else. (Kayte Young/WFIU)

“Now, I love food!  Let the people know–let the people in the back know--I, hey, I love food. I plan vacations around the top food spots. So, I love food. But I just don’t enjoy cooking”

This week on the show we hear the story about a local business, Popcorn Kernels with a Twist. We speak with the owner, Virginia Githiri, about what motivates her to run her own food business--since she doesn’t really like to cook. 

Three trays of caramel coated popcorn in a commercial oven, viewed through the glass of the oven door.

Fred Bennet mixes up the caramel, cooks it on the stove, pours it over the popcorn, and then it heads to the oven. It gets mixed, tossed and returned to the oven several times before the right texture is achieved.(Kayte YoungWFIU)

Virginia Githiri always knew she wanted to run her own business. She has a fulfilling career as a professor in the School of Public Health at Indiana University, but for her, having a side business runs in the family. 

Her popcorn business had a few false starts, but eventually everything clicked and you can find her shop on the corner of 4th and College in downtown Bloomington (where the hobby shop used to be). They also have an online store and they do fundraisers with groups

Hear the story of how Dr. Githiri found her way into a food business in spite of the fact that she doesn’t like to cook. We also talk about how she manages her work/life balance and what matters most to her as a small business owner. 

Music on this episode:

The Earth Eats’ theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

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