MoKa’s Kitchen is one of Walter Insurance and Real Estate’s small business customers and we are glad to be a small part of their journey. (Disclaimer: We admit to loving this popcorn. Keep the bacon cheddar corn coming, Karen!) Owner Karen Washington-Oglesby and husband, Shawn, shared their unique business story:
When Karen Washington-Oglesby came home from school in Grand Island each day, she and her siblings could count on one thing: popcorn waiting in a silver bowl on the kitchen table.
A handful of that fluffy popcorn signaled school was out; the family was together. Her sister might add Parmesan to make it cheesy. Her mom might make gum drop popcorn balls for fun. But popcorn was a constant, tying their memories together.
Popcorn was home.
Karen hopes you can taste that in MoKa’s Kitchen gourmet popcorn – that feeling that someone made it just for you. She pops it in small batches with gourmet flavors, many of which originated at her own kitchen table in Shickley, debating tastes with husband, Shawn, and sons, Owen and Oliver.
It started small, with a bowl of leftover popcorn in the break room at Shickley Public Schools, where Karen works. Her coworkers liked it so much, she took their requests. First came a birthday party, and then weddings, with popcorn in colors like navy blue and silver kettle corn, or a raspberry silver puppy chow.
Soon she was spending a fair amount of time in her kitchen creating new recipes. She hadn’t considered making popcorn a business, but it began to resemble one on its own. Karen and Shawn debated the pros and cons. When they found an industrial popcorn trailer on eBay, barely used and perfect for their business, they bought it. Usually, their marriage is one of balance, Karen says: “I jump. He’s my tether.”
This time they both jumped. “The trailer was one of those meant-to-be kind of things,” Shawn said.
With their equipment purchased, they looked into the starting blocks of small businesses: licensing, regulations, legalities.
“The lawyer raised some questions that we hadn’t thought about,” Karen said. “We realized we really needed insurance.”
Walter Insurance listened to the family’s needs and concerns. “(Walter Insurance) handled everything. They answered our questions and knew all the criteria for the policy. It was painless,” Shawn said.
Small businesses need policies to fit their size and risk factors and specialty businesses aren’t a match for all commercial insurance carriers. After researching options, agent Roxie Schlegel found a policy that fit, providing crucial liability and property coverage.
“The biggest thing is the liability coverage. If the unexpected happens, someone trips on a step by their trailer, someone sues them -- it’s very important,” Roxie said.
On a hot summer day, Karen's family is home, preparing for lunch. Karen’s nephew Josh Harris walks out of his house next door and waves. It was Josh – teaching music and band at Shickley Public School – who convinced Karen to move to town. Karen was looking for a classroom where her son could receive more one-on-one instruction. “Enroll them in Shickley,” Josh suggested.
That’s how the family came to live in this house directly across the street from the school building and how Karen came to be known as “Coach O” in Fillmore County. A three-sport athlete whose talents and 5’11” stature took her all the way to Wake Forest University and its athletics, Karen joined Shickley’s coaching staff for volleyball and track and became a familiar referee at area games. Shawn commutes to Lincoln for his job as a juvenile care specialist.
Karen has a degree in criminal psychology and enjoys her roles with the school, but popcorn is a calling of sorts. She can dream up a dizzying number of recipes or replicate a taste without knowing the ingredients, using her palate the way a musician plays by ear.
The scariest part of the business now, Shawn said, is that all the recipes are swirling around in Karen’s head. (She’s been too busy popping to write them down.) No one wants to lose their favorite, whether it’s caramel marshmallow or sriracha and honey.
In their living room, bags of popcorn fill a basket by the front door, waiting for a customer pick-up. MoKa’s Kitchen fulfills individual orders of all sizes, whether it’s a wedding with 750 guests or an order of three small bags.
Their popcorn trailer rolls into towns for Farmers Markets, county fairs and town festivals. They are just beginning to expand into fundraisers and boutiques as well. Shawn helps when his job allows and the boys pitch in. Otherwise, Karen pops. Her mom helps sell.
Mother Ruby Washington drives from Grand Island to be a part of the operation. She is the company cheerleader and “my biggest fan,” Karen says; her mom is the one shouting out “Try our popcorn. My daughter makes the best around!” to potential customers walking by their popcorn trailer.
One has to know a bit about the Washingtons to completely understand their success at this business. Karen’s father was an Apostolic preacher. He passed away a few years back, but she still carries the lessons he and Ruby imparted on generosity and living life in a positive way. Karen grew up the middle child in a family of seven kids. But that’s not what she means when she says she grew up in a big family. Her mother took in foster children for about 35 years, bringing the size of the (extended) family to roughly 200.
“I grew up in a very blended family. Each year was a different family. I don’t know strangers,” Karen said. Popcorn was a snack that could feed all who gathered around the table and be tailored to taste.
That’s how there came to be more than 100 flavors on MoKa’s popcorn menu. Customers go crazy for traditional blends like cookies and cream, puppy chow and cheesecake. Karen also reaches those searching for the unusual, like jalapeño, beer, dill pickle and pomegranate. And when it reaches those select customers’ taste buds, they go crazy, too.
That’s the fun part. Popcorn is meant to be shared and savored, Karen believes. She happily takes requests home and works to add them.
Currently, Karen and Shawn are experiencing the growing pains of a start-up business. They wish they had more experience in the business world. Karen does research far into the night, wanting to answer all the questions in her head; questions about bookkeeping and details you only learn by doing: What’s the right price point for specialty foods in the Midwest? How do you light up the menu for night-time events? Is it possible to serve chocolate recipes at summer festivals when everything is sweltering? Shawn tells her to get some sleep and they remind each other to be patient.
Fortunately, they found support in an unofficial network of small business peers who help each other out.
Karen continually refines their menu and works on her latest requests.
She wants to add a salsa-popcorn variety, but that’s one of those questions that rolls around her head in the night: How do you add salsa without ending up with soggy popcorn? She’s making barbeque and bacon for her nephew and she’s seriously trying to make the biscuits and gravy flavor one male customer requested. (That request might take a while.)
But when it does, there a good chance it involved her family of taste-testers, gathered around that silver bowl, which now proudly resides in Shickley.