How a Memphis husband-and-wife duo are building their retirement savings through social entrepreneurship.
On December 12, 2023, AOF-backed entrepreneur, Dr. Penny Mickey, owner of Mickey’s Popcorn was joined by Meredith Medlin Dooley, AOF’s Senior Director of Business Education Programs, for a brief interview on WREG, the local Memphis TV news station. The two shared their perspective on the importance of AOF’s FedEx E-commerce Learning Lab.
Read more about Dr. Penny Mickey journey into entrepreneurship below:
Mickey’s Popcorn, a small-batch gourmet popcorn venture, caters to nostalgic snackers and gift enthusiasts. Founded in 2019 by husband-and-wife duo Penny and Kenneth Smith-Mickey, the business was born to bolster their retirement savings.
In 2020, the Memphis couple took a bold step during economic uncertainty and purchased their first large piece of equipment for a hefty discount – a 3-in-1 popcorn popper, tumbler, and caramel cooker that had been waiting for a new home while sitting on a showroom floor. After getting equipped with the tools they needed to officially launch, Penny and Kenneth started popping and crafting popcorn in their church’s commercial kitchen in Ohio. By 2023, they had become a licensed food manufacturer in Tennessee and closed on a 5,000-square-foot commercial factory. Today, Mickey’s Popcorn is the world’s first and only licensed Tennessee Whiskey Caramel Popcorn, an accomplishment made possible through their partnership with Uncle Nearest, the world’s first-known African American master distiller.
More than just a delicious craft popcorn brand, Mickey’s Popcorn also operates as a social enterprise with a non-profit arm. The GradUS Project (which translates to ‘another step’ in Latin) provides a work-based learning program for domestic violence survivors and autistic youth in Tennessee. Through a 3-month on-the-job training program at Mickey’s Popcorn factory, participants get the skills-based training they need for longer-term job placements in manufacturing, supply chain, and distribution.
Penny and Kenneth’s journey to find success in the popcorn business was far from a siloed experience. By receiving mentorship and participating in FedEx’s E-Commerce Learning Lab, a hands-on learning, e-commerce accelerator, and grant program supported by Accion Opportunity Fund and 37 Oaks, they gained the knowledge, tools, and confidence they needed to take their business digital and to the next level.
“The FedEx E-Commerce Learning Lab was the fire that sparked our success. It helped us understand what we needed to be customer-facing and our back-end support needs like customer care services and shipping strategies. It gave us a scalable plan that accelerated our growth into e-commerce and beyond,” Penny said.
Like many entrepreneurs, Penny and Kenneth faced many challenges when seeking to grow their business. They took pride in the fact that they bootstrapped their business using their own savings to launch. However, after receiving an invitation from Kroger to stock their popcorn in 20 stores, they needed financing to cover the cost of supplies and inventory to fulfill what was one of the largest orders they had received. Backed against the wall with limited options, they connected with a financing officer from Pathway Lending, a Community Development Financial Institution with deep roots in Tennessee and was later approved for a line of credit that help them buy inventory and displays to satisfy their new demand.
“Entrepreneurs should not have to deplete their family’s savings to finance their business growth. This experience taught us what good debt was… if the debt will help you generate 2-3 times your revenue and you can pay the debt back, that is good debt” – Penny Smith- Mickey, Co-Owner of Mickey’s Popcorn
When they aren’t popping and crafting kernels, Penny and Kenneth are giving facility tours and live demonstrations on how they make their caramel flavored popcorn. Recognizing growing interest and the valuable opportunity to bridge generational learning gaps, the husband-and-wife team is now exploring an expansion into culinary tourism – innovative concepts such as ‘Pop-and-Sip’ tours, ‘Build-your-Own Popcorn’ experiences, and interactive ‘Science of Popcorn’ educational stations are just some of the ideas currently under consideration.
Moreover, the Mickey duo remains steadfast in their pursuit to penetrate new markets and broaden their hospitality ventures. “We’re focused on cracking the code to accelerate our expansion,” Penny remarked when discussing future plans for the business. She emphasized, “We recognize that securing shelf space in at least 650 stores is pivotal in our journey toward building generational wealth.”
Interested in tasting Mickey’s Popcorn? You can purchase their popcorn online directly from their website or at Walmart.com. If you prefer to shop in-person, Mickey’s is currently sold at 50 hotels nationwide (including Hilton Hotels and Horseshoe Tunica), 39 Kroger locations, and 50 Publix grocery stores across Tennessee.