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Inspired by travel #1: Joe & Seph’s

How business trips to Chicago got Joseph Sopher thinking about popcorn - and led to a premium brand retailing unique flavours, from gin to Camembert

Company: Joe & Seph’s
Founder: Joseph Sopher and Adam Sopher
Started in: 2010

Joseph Sopher, co-founder of luxury popcorn brand Joe & Seph's, is a firm believer that you can gauge a good business idea by the willingness of customers to part with their money.

When Sopher's colleagues started to hand over their hard-earned cash, asking him to bring them back premium quality popcorn from his trips to Chicago, the businessman began to wonder why no one in the UK had thought of adding a touch of class to these sweet treats.

Not content to merely copy his American counterparts, Sopher and his son and co-founder Adam created a distinctive air-popped product that he says releases one flavour at a time in a unique taste explosion.

Having transformed popcorn from stale cinema fare into a gourmet treat, the company retails in luxury stores across the UK, including Selfridges, Harrods and Harvey Nichols. Not to mention that it has won 35 Great Taste awards, and even exports the product to its original source of inspiration: the US.

In 2013, the business was listed in the Startups 100 – the definitive list of the UK's top 100 start-ups – and Adam Sopher was later inducted into the Young Guns Class of 2015.

We spoke to Joseph Sopher about how his business trips to America inspired him:

Where were you when you got the idea?

I was in Chicago. I used to have to travel there regularly for business.

Why were you so inspired?

The first time I was out there 19 years ago I needed a present to take back to the people in the office and saw popcorn for sale. When I brought it back everyone went crazy for it.

The popcorn was nothing like a lot of the cinema popcorn we have over here, which is fried in oil and then sprinkled with salt or sugar. In America they use a caramel coating rather than just a seasoning and while some still fry, others air pop, which is what we do, as it's healthier and stops the popcorn from becoming tainted by the taste of the oil.

Were you actively looking for a start-up idea or did it seem too good to pass up?

I was just looking for a gift! I had to go back many times to Chicago for business and people at work started giving me money to bring them back some popcorn, so I started wondering why no one had thought of doing this over here.

I was too busy at the time so I packed the idea to the back of my head for 15 years.

How easy was it to start the business on your return?

I had been in semi-retirement after leaving my previous business and so the hardest part was getting back into the working habit. Actually setting up a business wasn't that difficult, as I understood how it worked, having managed a business already.

A major challenge was understanding the food industry as my previous job had been with an electrical distributor. I took a crash course in food safety and just learnt as I went along. My key aim from day one was to develop the best tasting product in the safest environment.

What research did you have to carry out to learn more about the sector and the market opportunity?

I started making popcorn for fun in 2009 and it took me a long time to work out how to make good popcorn. By October 2010 my wife and I decided we wanted to do something unique. Having done nothing for two years, it was our kick-start into life. We had the opportunity to sell our popcorn at a BBC Masterchef exhibition so we went for it.

We had no idea if the couple of hundred grams of popcorn we were creating in a domestic oven would translate into a couple of hundred kilos in a commercial oven, or if anyone would even want it. We were phoning up people beforehand asking them if they would want some left over popcorn. However, within two hours of arriving, we had a queue 10 deep – so we realised there was a market for it.

When I started making popcorn I made a point of not visiting Chicago for five years, as I wanted to create the best popcorn I could without being influenced by the American equivalent. Before I launched my business I decided to travel to Chicago. I landed at 8pm and headed straight to the shop that sold the popcorn as it was open late. I was petrified that I was going to hate my product as soon as I was reminded of the great taste of the American product. I had one taste and immediately thought, “What did I ever like about this?”

In America I met with lots of food equipment manufacturers to gain a better understanding of what I should use with my popcorn. While I was there I decided to ask them what they thought of my popcorn and they said that they had tried a lot of popcorn in their time, but mine was the best they had ever tasted.

The US had not even been in my sight as an export opportunity before then, but that gave me confidence and I realised the real potential of my business.

How did you replicate what you'd seen overseas or use your experience there?

We wanted to create a better tasting popcorn. Every flavour we design, we try to replicate a real-life product, so for example in our Irish coffee popcorn you can taste the cream, the coffee and then the whiskey.

I came across the idea of layering flavours so that you can taste one flavour at a time by mistake. One day I was making popcorn for a friend and realised I had missed out an ingredient, so I re-cooked it and threw in the ingredient and discovered that I could control the flavours. This is what the press go crazy for.

How much did you invest in getting started?

Approximately £100,000.

How quickly after starting did you experience what you'd describe as ‘success'?

Our ambition was to be stocked in all the top end food stores. Because we were ready for launch in November 2010, we had no chance of getting into a retailer that side of Christmas, so we set up in a Christmas market in Brent Cross and became the fastest selling stall ever seen for a single product.

By April Selfridges took 10 of our flavours and it soon became one of their fastest selling products. From then we just picked up speed, moving into Harrods and Harvey Nichols. I knew of a few European stores but never really expected to take our product there. We're now in El Corte Ingles in Spain as well as other European destinations, such as Switzerland.

We certainly didn't go looking for US retailers or those from the Middle East – they came to find us at trade shows. We've had phenomenal support from the press, which has really helped and we're now stocked in over 1,000 stores.

Where did you go for advice?

I didn't.

What advice would you give to others who travel looking for start-up ideas?

When you find the right product it will hit you. It's important to research the market first. Don't just go by what your friends and family tell you is good – test it out on your customers. Whenever we're about to launch a new product we take it to a trade show and if 90% of people don't buy after tasting, we won't launch it. British people are too polite to say they don't like it – the proof is if they are willing to part with their money.

What are your future plans?

We'll definitely remain as a popcorn company as that's what we do and we do it well, but there are so many opportunities to expand. I don't know whether we created the trend or joined at the right time, but popcorn is certainly the snack of the moment. We're very focused on maintaining our high quality so I'm constantly paranoid of growing too quickly and sacrificing on quality. It's important to stay true to our brand.