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Carolina Kernels: 65 flavors of popcorn – and counting

“Famously Hot” popcorn at Carolina Kernels.
“Famously Hot” popcorn at Carolina Kernels. Provided photograph

When Tamala and Vinson Lathan opened Carolina Kernels in Columbia’s Greenview Plaza on North Main Street two years ago, the husband and wife team had no idea their gourmet popcorn would be sold at Colonial Life Arena and University of South Carolina athletic events or that they would get orders from as far away as Wyoming, Wisconsin and New York.

“We were really busy at Christmas sending orders all over the U.S.,” Tamala said.

The business saw such immediate success that in March, after just two years in business, the Lathans moved to a larger location – a former car lot – at 2720 Main St.

The larger location allows more room to showcase Carolina Kernels’ 65-plus flavors of specialty popcorn – flavors such as key lime pie, chocolate pecan pie, cheesy buffalo wings, better cheddar and dozens more.

“We just try flavors we like and they work,” Tamala said. “We are always working hard to create new flavors to provide our customers with an array of options. All of the flavors are made in house in small batches to help ensure quality and freshness.”

One of the local favorites is a special recipe that the Lathans call “Famously Hot,” a flavor created especially for the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Columbia’s tag line is Famously Hot, so just like the summer days in Columbia ‘Famously Hot’ popcorn flavor starts out cool and slowly brings the heat that might leave you sweating,” Tamala said. “It’s our secret blend of cheeses and spices.”

The Lathans also are cooking up their next product, hot mini-doughnuts that will be sold at area sporting events and, if well received, will be sold in the store. 

How did Carolina Kernels get its start?

Both Tamala and Vinson are self-described “foodies.”

“We love to travel and sample the local fares wherever we go,” Tamala said.

It was Tamala’s love for all things popcorn that started her on her way to Carolina Kernels. Tamala started making flavored popcorn several years ago in her home kitchen in Atlanta. She quickly outgrew her own space, rented a commercial kitchen and started selling online. Orders started taking off immediately; Tamala soon decided to open a store back in her home state in Columbia’s Greenview area close to where she grew up.

Within two years Carolina Kernels outgrew that location, which led to the shop’s relocation last month.

What else?

While popcorn is the obvious draw for customers to Carolina Kernels, folks may not realize the restaurant is also just that – a restaurant with a full cafe-style menu with items such as housemade chicken salad, a fried bologna sandwich and even banana pudding. Wash it down with some fresh-squeezed traditional lemonade, strawberry lemonade or fresh-brewed tea, all made fresh every morning by Tamala’s mother, Geneva.

“We call the tea ‘Mama G’s tea,’ ” Tamala said.

The menu also includes Vinson’s favorite food: hot dogs.

“Just like the popcorn, the hot dogs come in a variety of flavors,” Vinson said.

Choices include the typical chili dog, Chicago dog, and slaw dog but also specialty dogs such as the Main Street Famous, which is topped with grilled onions and peppers. There’s also the Big Herb, named after Tamala’s father, which includes grilled beef sausage, chili, New York onion sauce, cheese and Giardiniera peppers.

“Vinson and (my dad) used to spend a great deal of Saturday morning hot dog hunting around Columbia after their weekly trip to the flea markets,” Tamala said. “ He is responsible for Vinson’s love of hot dogs.”

Who eats there?

The clientele is as varied as the popcorn flavors,” Tamala said.

Carolina Kernels draws a good number of moms with young kids, city officials and employees and area professionals – anyone who likes popcorn.

What does the place look like?

The decor at Carolina Kernels pales in comparison to the aromas that waft through the eatery’s new digs. Now, there is a display are for the popcorn and space for lunch customers to sit down and dine in. Future plans for the property include more outdoor seating, bike parking and a doggie station with fresh water and treats for the many four-legged friends that accompany customers walking from the surrounding neighborhoods.

If you go

Carolina Kernels

Where: 2720 Main St.

When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday

Cost: Popcorn per bag ranges from $3.50 to $10.50, depending on size and ingredients. All sandwiches are $6 or less.

Details: (803) 851-6195; www.carolinakernels.com; www.facebook.com/carolinakernelspopcorn