Sweet Smell of Success
A struggling Realtor finds a new life in the kettle corn business.
Joe Clemente, co-owner of Nettie's Kettle Corn, never imagined he'd end up making and selling kettle corn for a living. Actually, it would be impossible for him to have imagined that since until a few years ago, he had never heard of the product.
Clemente's first encounter with the sweet-tasting addictive food came in July 2009 when he and his girlfriend Linda Rossi went to the art festival in Wickford, R.I.
He tells the story, "After we parked the car and got out, Linda said, 'ooh smell that, it's kettle corn. I said, 'what’s kettle corn?' She told me she had eaten it in Florida, and we had to try it."
The couple followed the smell to the vendor and a life-changing moment. As he stood in line waiting to purchase a bag, Clemente watched in amazement at customers "literally throwing money at this guy."
Walking away with his bag of kettle corn, Clemente began to think with the combination of an entrepreneurial sprit and his background as a former culinary student and chef.
"I told my girlfriend, 'you know, we could do something like that,'" Clemente said.
The couple immediately went to work.
Clemente, a Realtor who was struggling like many others in the business, began to research kettle corn—how it's made, how it's sold. Rossi came up with the name Nettie's because it was something that sounded old-fashioned. Ian Cox, a student from Rhode Island School of Design, was hired to create the logo—a woman that could be anybody's grandmother holding a bowl of the sweet stuff.
With a supply of kettle corn, lots of hope and no elaborate business plan—Clemente and Rossi were ready to start selling just two months after the Wickford incident. The first stop was an event at a Rhode Island church's parking lot.
"We made $66 that first day, and I said, 'what did I get myself into?' But we kept plugging along," Clemente said.
Then it all happened so fast, they appeared at area farmers markets and the Seekonk Speedway flea market. After those closed by the end of October, next came winter farmers markets in Pawtucket and North Attleboro as well as holiday bazaars at nearby churches.
Later in the winter, Clemente met with La Salette in Attleboro about selling the product, and a wholesale deal was finalized. This became a stepping stone for getting into other stores. Nettie's can now be found in more than 60 places throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Six months after he tasted his first batch of kettle corn, Clemente was making and selling the product for a living in partnership with Rossi. They cook the food at their Pawtucket facility and on-site at various farmers market. For opening day of the Attleboro Farmers Market this Saturday, they will be cooking at the event site in the municipal parking lot on 74 North Main St.
"It's great to work at farmers markets," Clemente said. "Everybody is smiling, especially when they're waiting in line to buy a product like this."
Kettle corn is not complex, with an ingredients list that can be easily memorized (it's in how one tweaks the recipe that separates the winners from the others). But it is highly addictive and a rising favorite in this country, rivaling its regular and buttered cousins.
"I think it's that perfect mix of sweet and salty that really attracts people," Clemente said.
The Attleboro Farmers Market will include Nettie's Kettle Corn and a variety of other vendors (look at the attached chart for an idea of what food items are in-season and possibly available at the market) when it opens for its second season this Saturday from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. in the municipal parking lot on 74 North Main St. The market will continue on the same schedule every Saturday through Oct. 27 (except for a week off Sept. 29).