Surrounded by droves of hungry foodies on Saturday at the Shrimp and Grits Festival on Jekyll Island, Joe Steffy — sporting a mohawk — seemed at ease, happily loading bags and bags of kettle corn for customers to take home while his sister, Jennifer Stratton, scooped out free samples of the old-fashioned, homemade gourmet popcorn.
Occasionally lifting his hand to give the crowd a thumbs up, Steffy’s tireless and unwavering dedication to customer satisfaction and providing customers with the “always fresh, always tasty, always satisfying” popcorn his business, Poppin Joe’s Kettle Korn’s slogan, touts is something he’s been told he would never be able to do his entire life.
Born with autism and Down syndrome, Steffy, who is 29 years old, nonverbal and has an IQ level of 32, has proven that when the odds are stacked against you and it seems impossible to overcome the obstacles and difficulties in life, to remember that they are just building blocks toward success. And Steffy’s strength and perseverance have certainly helped him in his successes.
Raised on a corn farm in Iowa, Stratton, who is the director at the senior living community, HomeLife on Glynco in Brunswick, recounts her family’s early days of growing up on a corn farm.
“We would take homegrown popcorn to teachers during the holidays. Joe’s sensors were so in tune with the popping sound and the repetition that we knew he enjoyed making it,” Stratton said.
But when Steffy was 14 years old, his time working in a sheltered workshop for the disabled was about to come to a close.
“When I was 14 years old, I was told I would never hold a job, that I had poor attention span, couldn’t focus and would live in a group home,” Steffy said, using an augmentative speech device to deliver words.
Despite his love of people and sports such as swimming, snowboarding, horse riding, bowling and other activities, allowing Steffy to work or live independently was not an option for him. And his parents, Ray and Janet Steffy, refused to let their son be told he could never amount to anything because of his dual diagnosis.
Amazingly enough, the Steffys came across a popcorn venture that perfectly suited Joe’s love of work. While on a trip to Alaska, they stumbled upon kettle corn and realized that with the repetitiveness of the popping, scooping, bagging and serving, their son would be able to maintain his independence and build on his social skills by selling popcorn himself.
First serving kettle corn in the parking lots of Walmart and other grocery stores on Friday and Saturday nights, the Steffys then explored the concept of Poppin Joe’s in October 2000 as a legitimate small business.
“We found that Kansas had a better system for those with disabilities so we moved,” Stratton said.
There, Ray Steffy got in contact with Dave Hammis of Griffin-Hammis Associates, an advocate for self-employment opportunities for people with disabilities, who suggested that he take a Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities’ Partners in Policymaking class to take advantage of the state and federal programs available.
Janet Steffy, on the other hand, took a First Steps Fund course to prepare a business plan. Together, they were able to obtain $25,000 in grants to start up Poppin Joe’s.
“The Kansas Council on Developmental Disabilities purchased startup equipment; vocational rehabilitation purchased a computer and laser printer and provided startup costs; and the Social Security Administration ... also provided startup costs,” Joe Steffy said.
By April 2005, Poppin Joe’s was officially opened. Based in Louisburg, Kan., and now in Brunswick, Joe Steffy is the sole proprietor of the kettle corn small business.
Serving five different flavors of the sweet-and-salty snack — old fashioned, cinnamon, sweet and cheesy, golden caramel and white cheddar — Poppin Joe’s can be found in Walmarts, fairs, craft shows, car shows and events throughout Kansas and Georgia.
Locally, the popcorn has been featured at the Blessing of the Fleet in Brunswick and Darien, the Southeast Georgia Health System’s Bridge Run, Woodbine Crawfish Festival, Shrimp and Grits Festival, as well as many organizations and fundraisers such as the Miranda Faith Foundation.
Poppin Joe’s even ships off numerous bags of the gourmet popcorn to the troops in Iraq. For Joe Steffy, who has been invited to dozens of conferences across the country as a keynote speaker, redefining the labels he’s been given and overcoming the limitations expected of him while helping others to succeed and be accepted is what he’s most proud of.
“The joy and reward that Joe gets from equipping others is what it’s all about,” Stratton said.
Stratton said the Poppin Joe’s Foundation is in the works to empower those with disabilities, to provide them with the tools to succeed like her brother and to serve others.
“This is my dad’s legacy and we want to keep that alive. It’ll be a way for families with disabled members to do workshops, to get experience and to share their stories,” Stratton said, adding that her family has even helped local resident Brandon Sigman and his family to get his business, Sweet Georgia Sips, off the ground.
“It’s amazing the outreach you can get without even knowing it. This is purposeful work for Joe and requires a lot of hours and manual labor, and to see the impact he has had is just incredible. My dad says it best: ‘The biggest disability is having low expectations.’”