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 we’ll 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 couldn’t pack it quickly enough. Afterwards, the Selfridges buyer got in touch and said ‘we’re Selfridges, we need a proven popcorn. Let’s list you’.”
Handmade on London’s North Circular using all-natural ingredients, production isn’t 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 wasn’t easy. A creative approach was needed.
“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 he’d 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 we’ve done. Here’s some great PR we’ve had, new flavours, interesting listings’, things like that.” And, of course, getting the product into the buyer’s mouth.
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 haven’t 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 I’ve spoken to in the last few years who have not digested that point enough.”
Amassing 34 Great Taste Awards within seven years of launching could tempt complacency in some entrepreneurs. However, the Sophers haven’t settled on the UK market and exporting has been a big growth area for the business, particularly in wholesale. Joe & Seph’s can be found as far away as Hong Kong and the Middle East, right across Western Europe and in around 1,000 stores in Scandinavia. The popcorn has also been a success among British Airways and Virgin fliers.
In navigating local regulations as a foreign brand, Sopher was keen to champion the assistance on offer from the Department for International Trade (DIT). The body provides free advice and can put brands in touch with local embassies, acting as a key partner for any entrepreneurs looking at exporting.
Using personal networks has also been beneficial, and Sopher advised fellow business owners to pick up the phone and ask for pointers from peers with an international presence. “All of it can be overcome,” he added. “It’s just about finding the pathway around it.”
His years in the industry haven’t dampened the popcorn entrepreneur’s spirits, and he backed budding producers to join him. “You don’t need food and drink experience to start a business – and if you think there is a gap in the market, there probably is a gap.” Among Sopher’s nuggets of wisdom is an appreciation of the journey his own brand is still on. “If you step out of London, there’s an awful lot of people that don’t know who we are,” he said. “In that sense, there’s a decent amount of mileage left in the original product.”
A growing line of brand partnerships has been key in keeping things fresh. Craft beer fans can find a bag of Joe & Seph’s popcorn matched to their drink in BrewDog bars, and the brand even delivered three flavours, including a New York Cheesecake popcorn, in partnership with Twentieth Century Fox’s latest blockbuster musical, The Greatest Showman.
Consumer demand has also thrown up its own surprises. After attaining the licence from Unilever, the Sophers were able to produce a Marmite edition. “Our most divisive yet.” Something yet to find its way out of the testing room is a fry-up flavour. “There’s a bit of ‘watch this space’ on everything, because you just never know. That’s the fun of it.”
Business Advice met Adam Sopher at QuickBooks Connect London – a multi-day event that brings entrepreneurs, small business owners, accountants and developers together to grow, learn and connect with each other.
Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest from Business Advice.