A few years ago there was a recurring suspicion that perhaps popcorn’s time was up as a high-flying snacking mover & shaker. Popcorn was essentially here, there and everywhere in every imaginable pack size and format, from luxuriously indulgent and outlandish flavour marriages to meek, low-calorie offerings; whilst the rise of vocal new food movements (vegan, coeliac and keto) was inspiring an avalanche of ‘new style’ snacking.
And yet, despite these uncertain popcorn times backdrop, FMCG food technologist and sales director, Louise Webb couldn’t say no when a former work colleague and ex-marketing director Andy Valentine invited her to join him in taking over the ownership of Popcorn Kitchen, a gourmet, hand-popped popcorn from Surrey that had made encouraging early inroads into the luxury snacking fixture.
According to Louise, ‘Andy and I were both adamant that premium popcorn’s best day were very much in the future as an instantly gettable and permissible treat. Our newly acquired popcorn brand screamed indulgence, both in terms of its core ingredients (using reassuringly rotund and crunchy mushroom popcorn versus crumbly, run-of-the-mill butterfly corn), a good mix of decadent flavour profiles (e.g. we honestly own the world’s finest Salted Caramel) and a very understated yet approachable brand identity.
Our first telling move was recognizing that we didn’t need to forage in the unduly cluttered and all-too predictable supermarket aisles to succeed, when there were so many stylish delis, food halls, garden centres, sweet emporiums and coffee shops are actively looking for brands that make a real effort to prioritise their unique sector needs.
In the early years, Andy and I felt we could keep Popcorn Kitchen moving forwards between us, whilst maintaining our other consultant commitments, however only a few years down the road and we both knew deep down that in order for the brand to truly fulfil its full potential, we needed to go full-time, which was the exact moment we really started to motor.
In 2020 we launched a new tranche of indulgent flavours that played to our quintessentially English leanings, a flavour portfolio that celebrated some of our favourite sweet-themed treats, be that a Raspberry White Choc that took its flavour cues from Eton Mess, my favourite cake, Lemon Drizzle, a Choc Mint that doffed its hat to the world’s best known wafer thin, after dinner mint and a chocolate orange that was an unapologetic celebration of everyone’s favourite orange oil infused, spherical milk chocolate!
‘This was also the moment we decided,’ continued Louise, ‘that our fledging yet cult savoury stable that already included a: Sea Salt, A Sea Salt & Olive oil and a Salt & Sweet needed a NEW, eye-catching frontman to underpin our Slow Food commitments. Step forwards a truly decadent Cheddar Cheese popcorn, which can either be nibbled in ‘splendid isolation’ or as part of a well-crafted cheeseboard alongside crispy biscuits, various blue-veined, runny and well-rounded cheeses and a full-bodied red wine.’
‘For all these significant steps forward,’ continues Louise, ‘there’s no getting away from the fact that said, when Lockdown arrived, Popcorn Kitchen was a little undercooked, with an underwhelming website shop and only limited online retail exposure, two particularly frustrating oversights when it became clear just how much snacks became a go-to necessity at the peak of the stuck-at-home months.
Still Andy & Louise were determined to search for the positives and used Lockdown as the perfect refesh moment to dig a little deeper to determine where the business over-indexed and where it fell short. Key tasks involved looking a little closer at all the ‘under the bonnet’ workings of our business, overhauling of our procurement and gift pack alliances, the sprucing up our product photography, establishing a more ownable tone-of-voice whilst making a number of for-the-better changes, which not only elevated our bottom line but reduced our carbon footprint.
‘When all’s said and done Andy & I are positive souls,’ continues Louise. ‘Yes, like many other brand owners we were momentarily wrong-footed by the pandemic and yet COVID provided a handy regroup moment to explore every nook and cranny of our business. In recent months we have seen exponential growth in our garden centre, sweet emporium, food hall and independent wholesaler heartlands. Our new lines have bolstered our portfolio and reinforced our top-drawer credentials, whilst our various gifting formats (yard of popcorn, moneybox bottles and festive stocking fillers, to name but a few) have created new consumption occasions that play to our strengths.
If that wasn’t incredible enough, Popcorn Kitchen also started winning followings in unexpected places, with Estonia’s leading bookshop retailer/wholesaler, Rahva Raamat recently establishing itself as one of Popcorn Kitchen’s most vocal admirers.
In truth, becoming a brand owner certainly comes with added risk, stress and sleepless nights but the parental pride you feel for every small win is beyond compare. Louise concludes by adding, ‘Andy and I joined forces because we had both spent many years wondering if we could put our blue-chip learnings to good use in a very different working environment and succeed. Four years down the line and the answer is an unequivocal yes!’