oe Sopher’s love of American popcorn became so great that he had to push the limits of airline baggage allowances to smuggle it back into the UK.
His son, Adam, remembers one legendary haul when his father packed a 23kg suitcase full of the stuff. “It took a good few months to eat through it all,” says the managing director of Joe & Seph’s, the premium popcorn brand that was founded by his father in 2010.
Before that, Joe worked for an electrical company that sent him to conferences in the US. In a bid to find something different to the tasteless chocolate that everyone else always brought back, he discovered a popcorn shop that sold a different kind of product. “It came in interesting flavours such as cheese and caramel, and in much larger pieces than we got here,” remembers his son. “It tasted a lot better.”
Each year, Joe would return with a few extra bags for friends and family, until his luggage contained nothing but popcorn.
It was then that he thought that there might be something in this saporous snack that offered more than its salty and sweet British counterparts, says his son. “He said that when he retired, he would start his own popcorn brand, to which we all nodded, thinking that it would never happen,” jokes Sopher, whose father, not one to retire and relax, used his newfound free time to run home kitchen experiments.
“Traditionally, you fry the kernels in oil, but my dad popped them using hot air, which meant no oily taste and none of the calories that come with it,” says Sopher, who joined his parents to sell four launch flavours – including caramel, pepper and chilli; and caramel, mirin and sesame seed – at a trade show at Olympia. “We simply thought that if it goes well, we will make a business out of it.”
With three days of long queues and impressed customers, the trio got the attention of Selfridges, who were in the market for a premium snack. Selfridges started stocking the brand in April 2011, and Harrods and Harvey Nichols followed soon after.
“The main reason behind our success then was that our product was truly different,” explains Sopher, who quit his day job to join the business full-time in late 2011. Something else helped early on, he thinks. “We entered our products into the Great Taste awards, which are like the Oscars of the food world,” he says. “We were the first popcorn brand to be awarded gold stars, which gave consumers confidence in us.”
Applying for awards can be an effort, but it’s a good tactic for small firms with no marketing budget, adds Sopher: “A winner’s sticker will make people want to try your product more than they would otherwise.”
But for all the victories, there were difficulties too. “Cash flow will always be a challenge for a small business,” says Sopher, who bemoans a culture of delayed and late payments. “We had to consider our rent, chefs, ingredients and so on – and all of that had to be paid to simply make the popcorn, the return for which we would not get until 30, 60 or in some cases 90 days later. If you’re growing fast, it’s even more difficult to get right.”
The managing director thinks that the steady growth of Joe & Seph’s helped to avoid any crippling cash flow issues. “We grew very incrementally alongside the growing popularity of popcorn,” he explains. “There was never an overnight £2m injection of cash.”
Today Joe & Seph’s has 40 staff and an annual turnover of £6m. Its north London kitchen is where the flavour magic happens, with the brand boasting a range of 40 core flavours, including gingerbread latte, madras curry, and cheddar and smoked paprika. Its popcorn packs are sold by farm stores, independent shops, cinemas, bars, hotels and airlines.
Sopher says that it would have been tempting to outsource production, but manufacturing their own popcorn means that the family can be protective about the recipes and have total control over the product.
Retailers will often ask the company to create limited edition flavours (short runs of small packages) to pair with a new wine or tie in with an event. “We’re able to do that because we’ve got that control and flexibility,” says Sopher, who thinks that the family business has done so well because it never shied away from being a premium, artisan product. “Had we been more of an everyday mass-market popcorn, we would never have survived the big brands like Pepsi coming into an already crowded category.
“We can’t fight those budgets, but we can compete by being something that they’re not – artisan.”
In terms of what next for the sector, Sopher thinks that people will always be eating popcorn: “It’s not a fad health trend that disappears in a year; it’s still the ubiquitous movie snack.”
But to sustain its popularity, product innovation will be key. “The category came about because of innovation and consumers wanting something different to the boring, bland snacks that were on offer,” he says. “That’s why we’re always trying out new flavours and pack sizes.”
One such innovation is a new subscription service, which the company has just launched. From £16 a month, customers can have eight different flavours of Joe & Seph’s popcorn delivered to their door. “People have been asking us for years how they can try all of our different flavours and get our popcorn more regularly,” says Sopher, who loves working with his family.
“The first six months was definitely weird for me,” he admits. “How do you talk to your parents as equals? How do you manage each other and chase each other up on tasks?” It was an odd dynamic and a challenge at first, he says, but since then, things have been plain sailing: “It’s great to work with people whom you absolutely trust and are motivated by the same things.
“There’s nothing quite as powerful as that – and it’s the reason why our pace of growth has been so strong, because we’re all pushing for the same thing.”