It was not so long ago that popcorn was the preserve of our local multiplex – a snack reserved for when settling down to a big screen blockbuster. However, it is fair to say there has been somewhat of a seismic shift in the popcorn world of late. Far from being a treat one can only look forward to on a trip to the flicks, consumers have had their taste buds opened to a plethora of fancifully flavoured popcorn options. Yet there is one company that appears to have separated itself from the burgeoning crowd of popcorn manufacturers.
Founded in October 2010 by Joseph Sopher – previously the owner of an electrical wholesale business – Joe & Seph’s Gourmet Popcorn has taken the popcorn market by storm in the space of two years. A projected third-year turnover of £1.3m speaks for itself, and is made more impressive because Sopher had never had a professional interest in food. “Effectively, my only connection with the food industry was that I eat too much,” he jokes.
While Joe & Seph’s may have only been born in 2010, the idea for it was planted in Sopher’s mind on one of his regular trips to the USA in the 1980s. “I was looking for something to bring back for people in the office and I was walking down a street in Chicago, came across a popcorn shop and thought, ‘That will do’, took it back and everyone fell in love with it,” he recalls. “People in the office kept asking, ‘Can you bring back more of that popcorn?’ I think at one stage, in the days before baggage allowances, I brought back a suitcase with 23 kilos of popcorn.”
The whole experience got Sopher considering the merits of the popcorn business, but he was hesitant to take the leap. “I was busy enough doing what I was doing and I guess I spent the best part of 15 years wondering if popcorn is that popular, why has nobody ever done it over here?” he says. It was not until two years after his electrical firm slid into trouble that the opportunity arose for Sopher to act on his simmering curiosity. “I had been semi-retired for a couple of years and I felt I just needed something to kick me into gear, and the popcorn just fell into place,” he says.
Nevertheless, it was through chance that the special something – which now sets Joe & Seph’s apart from the competition – came to fruition. “I was making some popcorn for a friend and I forgot to put an ingredient in,” says Sopher. “I thought, I haven’t got time to start this from scratch, so I just threw in the ingredient and recooked it. And it was at that stage I discovered something which I suppose is driving the whole brand – what we now call ‘flavour sequencing’. Broadly speaking, that means we can control how the flavours are released on a piece of popcorn so they will be tasted in a preordained sequence.”
And herein lies the innovation in Sopher’s product – an innovation that ultimately turned a new pastime into a viable business opportunity for the aspiring entrepreneur. “I started to wonder if there was a business there, because now it wasn’t just popcorn, it was something totally unique,” he says. Added to the fact that the popcorn kernels were ‘air-popped’ (blasted with hot air) instead of fried in oil – a process which drastically reduces the product’s final calorie count and fat content – it was clear that Sopher was on to something pretty special.
Needless to say, from that point on, things moved fairly quickly, as Sopher’s sons Paul and Adam, along with wife Jackie, came on board to help prepare for the fast-approaching BBC Good Food Show, at which they would be exhibiting. “In the space of five weeks, we had to design the packaging, sort all the products and, four days before the show, I also found out we had to invent a brand name,” says Sopher.
He explains that the original working name, Joe’s Popcorn, was dismissed after another fleeting visit to the very Chicago popcorn shop where his idea was first conceived. “I went there, bought it, and I thought, I don’t know what I ever saw that I liked in there,” says Sopher. “Joe’s Popcorn sounded too American and even more so when I got back,” he says. “I thought, this is a world away from American popcorn – I don’t want it to be associated as an import, and we are very proud to say on the front of every pack ‘handmade in England’.”
However, chance would play its part again with the conception of the final brand name. “We had a clever team of designers and it was after I sent them an email where I’d mistyped my name – I put Joeseph instead of Joseph – that they said, ‘That’s it, you’ve just created the name’,” Sopher explains. “Behind the name is effectively me as the chef, but also me as the person who actually enjoys the popcorn and wants to make a popcorn I enjoy eating.”
The only challenge remaining then was producing 200kg of popcorn in time for the Good Food Show, and selling it all. Sopher, though, still had reservations about his product being ripe for commercial success. “I was phoning local hospitals seeing if, in three days’ time, they wanted 200 kilos of popcorn,” he jokes. Sopher needn’t have worried though, as his popcorn went down a storm at the show. “Within two hours we knew we had something,” he says. “People were queuing ten deep to buy the popcorn and word was spreading around the whole show saying that, ‘You have got to go and try this popcorn’.”
And the rest is history. Joe & Seph’s struck its first major retail deal with luxury department store chain Selfridges in March 2011 and the popcorn became, according to Sopher, “one of their fastest-selling grocery lines”. Harrod’s and Waitrose soon followed, along with Picturehouse Cinemas and high-end hospitality outlets including Claridge’s, where the popcorn is served as a drink-accompanying snack.
Indeed, while one could argue that turning down an offer from Fortnum & Mason – as Sopher did – speaks volumes, he explains there was sound reasoning for the decision. “They wanted to go down an own brand route and we decided very early on that own brand was not a direction we wanted to go in,” he explains. “It was a hard decision, especially in the early days, and we were very flattered to be asked, but in the end decided to stay with the principles we set.”
Keeping to those principles has certainly served Joe & Seph’s well. Deals with overseas retailers have been accompanied by a whole host of Great Taste Awards – unheard of for a popcorn company – and Sopher believes that the taste of his offering will continue to be the difference. “Because we are not masking the taste of oil or of something fried, you taste the genuine flavours that we wanted you to taste,” he says. “Most other popcorn companies fry the corn in oil and add the flavouring into the oil or just after it’s been fried, and the end result is you may have well just eaten a potato crisp.”
Sopher even suggests that, in the savoury department, Joe & Seph’s real competitors are the higher-end crisp brands, but even they skimp on flavour in comparison. “If you buy our goat’s cheese popcorn, it will taste as it says on the bag,” he says. “But if you buy a goat’s cheese crisp, I would challenge you on a blind taste to tell it is goat’s cheese.” His product is also a healthier alternative, but Sopher is keen not to place too much weight on this, so to speak. “The calories are what the calories are at the end of the day,” he says. “What we are interested in is that when somebody bites into one of our products, we have given them the best experience they are ever going to get.”
Now with a team of experienced pastry chefs at his disposal, one would be hard-pressed to envisage Joe & Seph’s not dominating the gourmet popcorn market for a while yet. And staying true to the company’s core values is indispensable in this regard. “The key thing for us is not to get confused by what other people are doing,” says Sopher. “We have got our own goal which is, we will make the best tasting product on the market and we will not sacrifice that as we grow.” You can’t say fairer than that.