Pop’s Kernel Gourmet Popcorn is all about radical inclusivity
When you walk into Pop’s Kernel Gourmet Popcorn, you will notice three signs in the building. One is the business logo. The second is the history of popcorn. The third is for the “patience line.” The latter two have translations in braille.
Timeko Davis-Wade, sole proprietor of Pop’s, says she has not encountered any blind customers yet, but because she believes in radical inclusivity, she’s trying to make sure she is ready for whoever wants to try some of her signature popcorn.
She says her idea of radical inclusivity is “very intentional.”
She works to make all customers feel comfortable and to hire people with special needs.
Her son, Devin, has high-functioning autism. Like many others with autism spectrum disorder, Devin communicates, interacts, and learns in ways that are different from others. “I noticed that my son had jobs that he couldn’t retain because they didn’t have enough patience to work with him,” she says. “It dawned on me that I have a gift that God has brought into fruition. I get to build a legacy for my own family and the community.”
So Timeko carved out an opportunity for her son and his longtime friend Alex Hannah. Both men attended Concord Academy, a school that says it welcomes students “with a combination of unique needs.”
As Pop’s was in its beginning stages, Timeko noticed the blossoming camaraderie between Alex and Devin. Alex, who is more social, helped Devin open up. Though Devin has since moved out of town, Alex still works for Pop’s, as its only employee with special needs. But Timeko is developing ideas to expand her program.
“As the business grows, we’re looking to hire more young adults with special needs,” she says. “I want radical inclusivity to be normal. Everyone is different, but everyone is the same.
[People with special needs] want to be treated as young adults. I ask [Alex] questions. I want to know his opinions, and I seriously consider his suggestions to make the business better. I love Alex. I treat him like he’s my own son. I don’t have to micromanage him. He just knows. You give him a little, and he goes with it.”
Because each person’s needs are different, there are challenges to working with people with special needs. “There could be two people with the same condition, but they are different. We pray, listen, and work with them. We’re closed Mondays and Tuesdays to learn more about each other. I try to learn their love language so that, when we open the doors, there are no hiccups or major surprises. No one feels excluded by giving extra time and patience,” she says.
She hopes other businesses will consider providing more opportunities for people with special needs.
“Be open. Be intentional about hiring others outside of what you would normally see come through your door,” she says. “Be more patient and be more kind. Explore avenues on how to onboard young people with special needs.”
Alex helps Timeko run the business by applying labels, bagging popcorn, helping at the counter and register, and running the patience line.
The patience line sign reads: Everything God is preparing for you is worth the wait.
“I know that the patience line is something God breathed into me,” says Timeko. “The patience line is for the customer that has autism, for instance, may not move as quickly, or need more assistance. We give them more time to process and order, so they have the best possible service.”
Alex runs this line because he has patience and understands how to work with people who move through the world like him.
“My favorite part of the job is greeting everyone when they come in because I have a positive attitude and I make people feel welcome, blessed, and they can take their time to make their choices on what to buy,” he says.
He wants people to understand that people with disabilities get treated differently, but if you work with them, they can do it.
“Just show them the basics and you help them.
No matter what people’s disabilities are, they can do everything that other people can do if they put their mind to it without judgment.
It just takes time,” he says.
As an athlete ambassador for the Special Olympics of Memphis—South Region, Alex visits other businesses to encourage them to engage with Special Olympics. A Special Olympics competitor since fifth grade, Alex has participated in basketball, volleyball, bowling, running, and powerlifting and has medaled in track and field.
At 25 years old, Alex is a college graduate and member of the Memphis Grizzlies Claw Crew, where he engages fans during halftime shows.
Alex also appears as a basketball player named Jimmy in the 2023 movie Champions, starring Woody Harrelson.
“My life goal is to have a film career,” says Alex. “I want to become a singer someday, and I also want to have an elementary school career.”
But for now, if you show up at Pop’s, Alex will be happy to take care of you. The popcorn comes in at least 13 flavors per season—including vegan options. Alex recommends customers try the Just Butter, Tuxedo, Sweet Butter Caramel, and Windy City flavors. There are three bag sizes: selfish (for one person), share (for multiple people), and soiree (for parties).
Their new brick and mortar shop in Cordova is open Wednesday through Friday. Thanks to the new location, customers can experience the flavored popcorn warm. (It makes a difference—though the bagged product is still excellent.)
You can also purchase this treat online or in various downtown Memphis locations including Cordelia’s Market, Chef Tam’s Underground Cafe, The Westin, and Grind City Grocer & Gifts.
Timeko prides herself on customers never seeing unpopped kernels in the bag for—as she likes to say—a full AMAIZE-ing, taste experience. (Because maize…corn…popcorn? These are her jokes, not ours.)
Go for the popcorn, but stay for the kindness and puns at Pop’s.
1770 North Germantown Parkway, Suite 1
Erica Horton is a freelance journalist who loves to learn and write about almost anything. @chewsipfly
Paige Andersen, a former elementary school teacher, is now a full-time photographer and a part-time goofball. They are passionate about dismantling hegemonic inequality in their communities and hand-rolling their own pasta. If you see them behind a camera lens, you better pose! @p_a_i_g_e_and