From the top · 20 March 2018

Joe & Seph’s founder: Big brands just can’t do premium or artisan

Adam Sopher believes startups are well placed to corner the premium market
Business Advice caught up with Adam Sopher, co-founder of premium popcorn brand Joe & Seph’s to hear about the advantages of growing a young food brand and how Hollywood partnerships are keeping things fresh for the entrepreneurial family.

Adam Sopher took time out of his schedule as a busy young entrepreneur to take Business Advice back to the brand’s early days, when his recently retired father, Joseph, had revisited the homemade popcorn recipes from Sopher’s childhood.

The duo already thought their premium batch set it apart from the market’s current offering, and spent the next three months creating brand identity and packaging for six initial flavours. They arranged to take the product to a food trade show and set themselves an ultimatum: If it goes well well start the business, if not, we won’t. The first run sold out by the end of the second day.

people were going mad for the popcorn, throwing us money. We couldnt pack it quickly enough. Afterwards, the Selfridges buyer got in touch and said were Selfridges, we need a proven popcorn. Let’s list you.

Handmade on London’s North Circular using all-natural ingredients, production isnt cheap for the popcorn brand and bootstrapping the business was a constant challenge at the beginning. It was expensive to make, Sopher recalled, and funding the initial Selfridges order wasnt easy. A creative approach was needed.

Adam Sopher founded Joe & Seph’s with parents Jacqueline and Joseph in 2010
we rented a by-the-hour kitchen. Clean, cook, clean again, and off you go with your popcorn. We did that for each production run, a way of slowly but surely scaling without any overheads or commitments. The family also ran their business from home. That was our way of growing without having huge amounts of money at risk, Sopher added.

Despite the cash flow challenges, Sopher found that a product offering at the higher end had its advantage for a growing business. Big guys can’t do premium, so you’ve got longer to build yourself up as a brand, he explained. Premium is a really good place for startups. That handmade, artisan feel can’t be replicated by the big companies and there is a price premium attached to it, which buys you more time.

Sopher also noted that the arrival of a handful of everyday? popcorn brands to market after the initial show was beneficial. The combined effect of smaller brands all pushing created what is today a decent sized popcorn category. Things began to move quickly, and the business met its target of profitability early in its second year. We knew we could make business work with a 40 per cent margin on wholesale price.

After the early surge which saw Joe & Seph’s grow from a Selfridges listing into Harvey Nichols soon after, it took seven years to reach its first front-of-store campaign in Waitrose. it’s been about building credibility ‘slowly but surely, according to Sopher.

Now with a wealth of experience in supplying national retailers, Sopher was able to reflect on what he wishes hed known when starting out and offer some advice for younger food and drink brands. In terms of getting the product in front of a buyer, Sopher said it’s about turning the chase into updates. it’s about getting in touch to say Just to let you know in the last three months this is what weve done. Here’s some great PR weve had, new flavours, interesting listings, things like that. And, of course, getting the product into the buyer’s mouth.


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Becoming a large-scale supplier as a small brand also served as a reality check, bringing a valuable lesson to other producers. ?When you’ve done a big production line and it’s got a six months? shelf life, you havent actually got six months to get rid of all that product. The reality is a supermarket or big retailer will say: I want it with at least 75 per cent of the shelf-life. So, you only really have six, four, even two months to shift all that stock. There’s a number of people Ive spoken to in the last few years who have not digested that point enough.


 
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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Praseeda Nair is the editorial director of Business Advice, and its sister publication for growing businesses, Real Business. She's an impassioned advocate for women in leadership, and likes to profile business owners, advisors and experts in the field of entrepreneurship and management.

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