Editor's Note: This story has been changed to correct inaccurate information given by a source.
The unmistakable crunch and warm, buttery smell of the common movie snack has been a staple for thousands of years, and people have since found that it is also a great base for diverse flavor combinations.
The Muncie Mall is home to a variety of shops, and beginning the weekend before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a new business opened bringing with it a strong but familiar aroma.
Danielle’s Popcorn is attracting growing attention due to their variety of gourmet popcorn flavors. It has options for people with a sweet tooth as well as those whose palettes lean toward a more savory experience.
The owner and creator, Danielle Jernigan, grew up in Muncie and is a Ball State graduate. She highly values education and her community, and she uses her three businesses to fuel students’ enthusiasm for language and learning.
Jernigan’s passion for food flourished during her time as an undergrad student when she heard about a Muncie Black Expo event, which supports the social and economic development of African-American people.
Jernigan left Indiana about seven years ago, but before she left, she emerged into the food business. She got her start doing fish fries, which she was well known for. She has learned a lot since her pop-up tent at the Muncie Black Expo, and she continued her practice in Texas, before returning to Indiana at the beginning of the pandemic.
She was determined to improve and continued to go to events. One day, she met a man at an Anderson Black Expo event that told her that if she wanted to sell more, she needed to make something that would appeal to kids.
“He brought me to his truck, and he showed me the funnel cakes, and he showed me the Oreos,” Jernigan said. “And he said, ‘Look at this line. These parents are here bringing their kids, and you have a good product, but you don’t have anything for the kids, so you’re missing out on money, little sis.’”
She said that is when she thought about trying funnel cakes. Once this new business model was set into motion, it didn’t take long for parents and their children to start lining up.
“I took his advice and put my spin on it because, a lot of times, you have to make it your own,” Jernigan said.
She offers funnel cakes in various unique flavors including red velvet, peach cobbler and s’mores, one of her personal favorites.
“People love all the color stuff. Even at the fair, we were the small tent,” she said. “The big shots were coming all the way to our side to take pictures of our menu and pictures of our stuff.”
Since Jernigans got her start with the fish and funnel cakes, she has dropped the fish due to the expenses and increase in competition. She now specializes in a variety of different areas. Danielle’s Bistro is the primary entity, and Danielle’s Funnel Cakes and her most recent addition, Danielle’s Popcorn, are DBAs, or doing business as. This means that her popcorn and funnel cake businesses are pseudonyms, which allows her to operate within one organization.
Kenya Harless is an employee at Danielle’s Popcorn and admires Jernigan’s positive outlook and empathy for the people around her.
“I love working with Danielle because of her business knowledge, ambition and instructional style leadership,” Harless said. “She is charitable and loves her community.”
Her favorite thing about working at Danielle’s Popcorn is that she simply enjoys what she does.
“I like working for a local, small-owned business and helping provide a place of employment for our community,” she said, “[also,] learning new things and working alongside a good friend.”
Employees aren’t the only ones who feel like Danielle has impacted them in some way. In a little over two months, Danielle’s Popcorn has received almost 50 Google reviews, and every single one is five stars. Muncie resident Jonteonna Tucker and Jernigan favor the same popcorn flavor, Sweet Heat, but the popcorn wasn’t the only thing that made a lasting impression.
“The staff is wonderful. [I’ve] never had a bad visit,” Tucker said. “Another thing that really got to me was it’s a Black-owned business. When you see something like that, it brightens my day. My first visit, Danielle ... [was] there. [She was] so sweet and respectful.”
Tucker has returned since her initial visit and brought some people along to experience the gourmet popcorn. She had a movie night with some friends and knew that Danielle’s Popcorn was a great treat for the occasion.
Jernigan was raised by a single mother of four, and growing up, a lot of emphasis was placed on her education. She was pushed to focus on her grades during her time spent in Muncie Community Schools. She was also taught from a young age that quitting wasn’t an option.
“We were always taught, ‘Your education is your way out of here,’ so I was a top student,” Jernigan said. “I was in the top 10 percent of my class.”
During Jernigan’s senior year, she got pregnant with her daughter, Au’lise Balfour. While she and her family were devastated about what this meant for her future, Jernigan was still determined to pursue her education.
“When my mother was younger, she didn’t get to go to college because she had children, so it was really important for me to still go and follow through,” Jernigan said. “My mom really instilled in me the spirit of not quitting.”
Throughout her life, the emphasis placed on education and commitment has caused these values to manifest themselves through her business. She encourages kids to develop a passion for learning and push through difficulties in school with her Pop Open a Book reading program, which rewards children for reading with popcorn.
Jernigan has witnessed poverty being a key problem in her community and wants to help.
“As a community, people aren’t making as much money as they should or could,” Jernigan said. “When people are poor or they fall into that category, if you do not pursue your education or pursue some kind of skill, you may repeat that cycle.”
Jernigan understands how hard it is to pull yourself up because she has experienced that struggle in her own life.
“I had to do some work to be able to escape that poverty line. And more importantly, I did it with a baby, and I did it with some tenacity and this thing called don’t quit,” she said.
Jernigan wants to ensure K-5 kids have the opportunities that she had growing up as a student at Garfield Elementary School.
“I didn’t really feel limited as a child. I felt like we could run to the moon if we wanted to. The sky was the limit, so we didn’t have a lot of restrictions as to who or what we could be,” the culinary professional said. “I do hate when people are limited because of finances, especially kids. I want all kids to have really great opportunities because I didn’t have everything, but I had a whole lot of non-tangibles.”
Jernigan hopes that through this program, she motivates the kids to appreciate their education and what it can do for them. She invests in the students and inspires them through language, which aligns with the intent she has for the impact of her businesses. She feels that it’s essential to speak life into the kids because they remember when they’re supported, but more importantly, they remember when they aren’t.
“I am really passionate about the young kids because they’re so innocent, and they’re so impressionable,” Jernigan said, “and I feel like if I can play a part in helping these kids read books or grow, I feel like I did something else besides pop popcorn.”
Danielle’s Popcorn, along with Jernigan’s other two businesses, will soon have a new home in downtown Muncie. They will be posting updates over the next month, and she looks forward to continuing to grow and support the community.
Contact Ella Howell with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ella_rhowell