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Kernels, Custard, and Nerds
Ex-Krispy Kreme executive and wife start quirky quick-serve concepts in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Two new prototype quick-serve concepts are set to open in Krispy Kreme’s hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Kernel Kustard, a frozen custard and popcorn concept, and Brew Nerds, a coffee shop brand, are the brainchild of DJ McKie, former senior vice president of beverages and general manager of Krispy Kreme Donut Inc.’s coffee roasting factory, and his wife, Jennifer.

I had a five-year employment contract, and in that time, it was a highly transitional time for Krispy Kreme.”

Kernel Kustard opened its doors on October 10, serving freshly made frozen custard and warm, “right-off-the-popper” Chicago-style popcorn. Other Windy City favorites like salad topped hot dogs are also on the menu.

Brew Nerds is slated to open adjacent to Kernel Kustard by the end of November and offer classic coffee, espresso-based, and frozen beverages, along with an assortment of pastries. “We roast coffee fresh on site and we have car-side service. A nerd with a hand-held computer comes to your car and takes your order,” McKie explains.

The McKie’s affiliation with Krispy Kreme Donuts began in 2001, when they sold their specialty coffee company, Digital Java, Inc., to Winston-Salem–based Krispy Kreme and moved south from Chicago, where they had lived for nine years, to work with the company.

“I had a five-year employment contract, and in that time, it was a highly transitional time for Krispy Kreme,” McKie says. “When I came on, my entire set of goals was growing their beverage program, but to them it was always just a complementary product, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but the goal wasn’t going to change. It was just really looking at the future for someone like myself who is passionate about coffee and new concept development. It was a natural time for me to leave.”

McKie’s employment contract with Krispy Kreme was up in February 2006, but he stayed on until May of that year, at which time he and Jennifer co-founded Focus Tank, their new restaurant concept development group.

The creation of Focus Tank stemmed from the couple’s desire to stay in Winston-Salem—and still enjoy the treats they loved while living in Chicago, namely the custard, popcorn, and hot dogs.

“We’re excited to offer an entirely new taste experience and a complete menu of entertaining foods and beverages,” Jennifer McKie says.

To that end, the Kernel Kustard menu includes three kinds of hot dogs: a chili cheese dog; a Carolina dog, topped with mustard, chili, coleslaw and chopped onion and buried in a poppy seed bun; and a traditional Chicago dog, topped with mustard, relish, chopped onion, tomato wedges, a Kosher pickle spear, peppers, and a dash of celery salt and buried in a poppy seed bun. In addition, there is a selection of sandwich and hamburger plates, fries, and four kinds of popcorn, including a Chicago mix of caramel and cheddar corn.

“We anticipated that the food menu would have been 25 percent of our business, but it’s more like 40 percent now,” McKie says. “We have only been open a week, and people come back at 10 at night in their pajamas saying they had been there for lunch.”

As far as expansion goes, the McKies say they would like to build out as many corporate-owned stores as possible before branching out in the form of 10 to 12 licensing agreements each for Kernel Kustard and Brew Nerds.

The concept footprint puts the two quick-serves next to each other, each sharing a common area the McKies say is meant to feel like a natural gathering place.

“We think they are very complimentary of each other,” DJ McKie says. “We think it will be appealing, and we may even draw more people to Kernel Kustard and Brew Nerds, but the only way we’ll see that is if we build a couple that are freestanding.”

The McKies have received several requests for licensing, but they said they are still evaluating just how serious those offers are. They declined to provide details, but did say they presently have 32 employees for Kernel Kustard and are planning on hiring about 30 more. Staffing for Brew Nerds is underway, too, and by the end of the year, they hope to have a combined staff of 100 from management to operations directors to hourly employees.