Kernel Kustard opens in Winston

by Brian Clarey

Amber Winters takes the giant wiener from its steam bath and places it inside the soft poppyseed bun. Then she grabs the mustard bottle and begins to squeeze.

“That’s it,” says BJ Frentzel. “A little bit more… one more stream. Good. Now. First the pickle, on one side. Tomatoes on the other. That’s what we like. Two spot peppers down the center, then the onion.”

“We should get a scoop for the relish,” Winters says.

“We could,” Frentzel says, without much conviction, as Winters piles the iridescent relish on the dog. “There you go,” he says. “Now a dash of celery salt.”

And the deed is done.

It’s a soft opening at Kernel Kustard, a new frozen custard, hot dog, heavy sandwich and popcorn joint nestled among the raw dirt and construction pylons on the burgeoning end of Hanes Mall Boulevard.

“We knew we wanted to be in a high-traffic location,” says DJ McKie, who owns the concern with his wife, Jennifer, “somewhere that would eventually have foot traffic and car traffic. You know they’re putting a hotel in right over there.”

These two know what they’re doing. They opened Digital Java, a coffee-roasting company, in their native Chicago back in 1993, which was bought out by Krispy Kreme in 2001, those heady days before the Atkins diet took its toll on the share price of KKD. DJ McKie left Krispy Kreme in February 2006 and the couple started Focus Tank, a restaurant concept factory that bore fruit in Kernel Kustard, based on the kind of walk-up eateries that the two frequented all over the Midwest.

“Some of our favorite walk-up places, it’s not unusual with snow on the ground to have fifty to a hundred people outside,” DJ says.

The building is new, built to specifications set by the McKies, and indeed there is no interior dining room, just a series of patios, covered and uncovered, while the inside of the building is reserved for a formidable kitchen that dispenses the goods. The custard is used in shakes, malts and sundaes, and is also mixed with other ingredients like caramel corn, candy and fruit. There are rotating varieties of popcorn – the caramel is excellent – and a hot food menu that includes burgers, beef sandwiches, sausage and chicken.

And then there are the hot dogs.

The McKies insist on serving Vienna beef dogs from Chicago – they have almost all of their ingredients shipped down from the Windy City – and they are large and tasty. They come with chili and cheese, Carolina style with chili and slaw, or can be custom designed for particular appetites. But the Chicago dog is a house specialty.

And that’s what Winters is assembling for me now.

It’s enormous.

The dog itself is of exceptional quality, and you might ask why, with such a fine base product, one would want to slather it with so many toppings. But if you’re asking, then you don’t understand the principle of Chicago cooking – this is the city that made pizza fatter, sausages bulkier, and turned meatloaf into haute cuisine.

I wrap both my hands around it and dig in, leaning over the box it came in to catch the drippings. It’s an orchestra of flavors, the pickle giving it crunch, the tomatoes adding juicy freshness and the peppers bringing the heat. The relish, I admit, spooks me a little, but it is indeed authentic and straight from Chicago. And the celery salt… let’s just say that there are very few dishes that could not benefit from its savory goodness.

Outside the glorified hot-dog stand, the corporate mascot of the company, Kernel Kustard himself, holds court. With his giant head, monocle and clown shoes, he’s a pretty classy guy. And he also symbolizes the Mckie’s commitment to the concept, which they plan to franchise as soon as this store takes off.

“Kernel Kustard is kind of a celebrity,” DJ says. “He doesn’t stand out on the street with a hand sign. We feel he’s more special than that. He makes brief appearances, and something special always happens when he’s around. He gives out coupons for free food, takes pictures with the kids. People are always happy when he makes his appearance.”

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