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FRANKENMUTH, MI -- It's a hot and humid August afternoon at the Frankenmuth Farmers Market, but Ben Robertson is wearing long pants, long sleeves, black leather gloves and a protective face shield as he stands beside a 500-degree kettle. He uses a wooden paddle to keep the popcorn kernels within it moving as the oil heats up. When the time is right, he adds cane sugar, course salt.  Oil splatters and pieces of popcorn fly as he keeps the sweet and salty batch moving, stirring faster and faster. Then, when the kettle is full of popcorn, his mother Barb Robertson pours it out, allowing it to cool before scooping it into clear plastic bags and its sold.  The duo behind Kernel Benny's kettle corn business and The Cookie Rookie can be found under the bold red tent at the Frankenmuth Farmers Market, located at 534 N. Main, every Wednesday and Saturday. Barb Robertson created the Kernel Benny brand for her son, who suffered a head injury at the age of 7. Now 20, Ben Robertson keeps busy making kettle corn, specialty popcorn and sugar cookies and selling the products with her at the farmers market and elsewhere. He could collect disability benefits, but Barb Robertson wants more for him. "I don't want him to sit around and do that, because he's capable of doing more than that. And if he does that, he can't have this, you know?" Barb Robertson said. 

"I would rather him learn a good work ethic and stretch himself and realize that he's capable of doing things and being proud of himself and being part of the community and being productive."Ben Robertson said he enjoys the work. "I like my business because it's a source of employment," he said. "I like to make people happy with my corn."He added, "I get to meet a lot of people and it's always exciting." 

A life-changing injury In 2003, Ben Robertson's life was forever changed when he and his brother Joshua Agius, 16, were involved in an automobile crash. "They were T-boned, and both of the boys had a head injury," Barb Robertson recalled.   Ben Robertson survived. His brother died as a result of his injuries. By the time Ben Robertson was a teenager, school had become increasingly difficult for him and Barb Robertson decided to create a new opportunity for her son. That new opportunity came in the form of a small business called The Cookie Rookie, offering custom sugar cookies for special events and later, specialty popcorn varieties.  Eventually, the business grew to include Kernel Benny's kettle corn. Barb and Ben Robertson make their specialty popcorn and sugar cookies at home under Michigan's Cottage Food Law, which allows only for direct sale to customers at farmers markets and similar events. But with the relocation and expansion of the Frankenmuth Farmers Market, including the addition of a permanent building and incubator kitchen, Barb Robertson aims to continue to grow their business. This fall, she plans to use the new incubator kitchen to make licensed products they can sell online and in stores.  A grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Frankenmuth Farmers Market took place Wednesday, Aug. 24. Ben Robertson had the honor of cutting the ribbon.  Barb Robertson said creating a future for her son, not wealth, is what motivates her to do this.She would like him to be known as "Frankenmuth's popcorn guy.""We do a lot of local, community events in Frankenmuth because this is our town. This is where I want him to be used to living, working, playing, socializing -- all of those things," she said."I can't do it without him. He's the guy that stirs the kettle. I don't. I told him, 'You're the Kernel. You're going to have to stir that pot.'"Barb Robertson said the business has helped Ben Robertson in countless ways, teaching him practical skills, such as customer service and time and money management.Perhaps most importantly, "It gives him self worth."  "It gives him a purpose, a real purpose," she said. Ben Robertson had a message for his supporters. "I appreciate them -- all my customers," he said. Going forward, Barb Robertson would like to create opportunities for other people who have suffered injuries similar to her son's. "When we get established in the incubator kitchen, one of the things I would really like to do is be a vocational platform for people with special abilities or differing abilities," she said. She doesn't like to use the phrase "special needs."These would be volunteer positions, at least initially, for people to gain work experience and develop skills. Barb Robertson said her vision is to be "an advocate for those who can't advocate for themselves." "I would like to create something that would outlast me," she said. "I'm not going to be here forever, so I would like to create something that can help people who don't often get the chance."  


Kernel Benny Popping Kettle Corn

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Frankenmuth Farmers Market

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Salting & Packing

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