From electrical wholesaling to gin and tonic popcorn: Joe & Seph's Popcorn founders

How we beat the odds: Joe, Jackie and Adam Sopher on making unique popcorn and keeping business in the family.

by Elizabeth Anderson
Last Updated: 27 Feb 2014

We started making popcorn in our kitchen a few years ago after we saw how popular popcorn was in the US and we wondered why there was nothing similar here. Joe had retired after working in electrical wholesaling and was looking for a new hobby.

We made batches for friends using unusual flavours such as chilli and coconut and realised that we might have stumbled onto a business idea. We booked a stand at the BBC Masterchef Show (now the Good Food Show) and, to our surprise, came home with just the sign. On a high, we got a stand in Brent Cross shopping centre in 2011, selling six flavours. We were one of its best-performing mall stands ever.

Joe & Seph's was one of the first popcorn companies to use flavours including goat's cheese, coffee, whisky and gin and tonic. Most other firms fry their corn in hot oil, but we blast our corn with hot air, which is much healthier.

We put the flavour on afterwards, making sure we use only large pieces of popcorn. No one else is brave enough to sell their product in clear bags so people can see there's no rubbish at the bottom. The name comes from 'Joseph' split in half. Joe and Jacks was also considered, but it sounded appalling.

Selfridges approached us in March 2011, and we went in as a trial for its British Food Week and have never come out. Today, it stocks 25 flavours and we're still one of the best-performing products in the whole of the food store. Harrods and Wholefoods followed and in November 2013 we went into Ocado. We are also stocked in Picturehouse Cinemas, and hotels and airlines are approaching us. The business turned over £1m last year and this year we're expecting to at least double that.

One of our earliest challenges was finding chefs with the same passion as us. We originally rented a shared kitchen, but we quickly outgrew that and now we have our own kitchens employing 10 chefs who are making up to 500 kilos a day. We try to recruit only pastry chefs because they know how to manipulate the corn, and we use real flavours - there are no additives at all.

The banks, of course, weren't very helpful in the beginning. We managed to get a small overdraft but mostly we relied on our savings to get us up and running. Three years later, banks are approaching us, but we generate our own cash flow. We like going at our own pace and we don't want to grow so fast that it affects the quality of the product.

We weren't intending to go international, but stores in Paris, Switzerland and Australia approached us, and we now also sell in Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand.

Selling abroad is going to be our focus this year, and we're hoping to go into China soon. It has been a learning curve, but the only market we've had difficulty with is Turkey - our delivery is currently stuck there, waiting to go through customs.

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