Me & My Team

From home kitchen hobbyist to thriving SME

By Adam Sopher

- Last updated on GMT

Food Manufacture hears from popcorn brand Joe & Seph's MD. Credit: Getty/mediamasmedia
Food Manufacture hears from popcorn brand Joe & Seph's MD. Credit: Getty/mediamasmedia

Related tags me & my team R&D Innovation

Adam Sopher, co-founder and CEO of gourmet popcorn brand, Joe & Seph’s, tells his family’s story of success, fun flavours and non-soggy popcorn.

Company: ​Joe & Seph’s

Address:​ 3 Willen Field Rd, London NW10 7BQ

Number of employees: ​Approx. 60-70

Size of site: ​26,000ft2

Types of lines:

  • Gourmet popcorn range, available in 80 flavours (increasing to 85 this year)
  • Chocolate popcorn bites range, available in three flavours
  • Caramel sauce range, available in in eight flavours
  • Popcorn bar range, available in five flavours
  • Gifting and seasonal range, available in approx. 20 flavours

It wasn’t really a business at the start, it was my dad’s hobby to make popcorn and he had always vowed when he retired – which he did in 2005 – that he would set up a popcorn business.  

For years he was inspired by popcorn in the US, which was a much bigger market than the UK back then. He saw the different ways they made popcorn and the different flavours, whilst in the UK all we had was sweet and salty and often the quality wasn’t that great.

It started from my parent’s kitchen table with a bank overdraft, there was no big funding. We were what I call a ‘challenger brand’ – a smaller brand ‘punching above its weight’, going up against some of the bigger companies. We wanted to make the best tasting popcorn and disrupt the category, which at the time, we felt was a bit dull.  

My dad started to experiment with flavours and in 2010, we decided to book a consumer show just to see if there anyone who would actually buy it. By the end of day two, we had sold out. We had six flavours at the time and that was the beginning of Joe & Seph’s.

There were four of us involved at the beginning – all family – and we did a bit of everything for the first nine years. In 2019 we formulised it a bit more, I became managing director, my brother the commercial director and my parents, who are still part of the business, sit more as non-executives now.  

We have approximately 60-70 people on site, with everything happening under one roof. It’s all handmade and because everything is handled on one site, no two days are the same for me – there’s every possible part of the business for me to get involved with in some way. Someone said to me recently that an MD should be like ‘the conductor of the orchestra’ – and I think that’s a really nice way of putting it. But when it's a business as fast growing as ours, in reality I am conducting whilst playing several instruments at the same time!

How popcorn is made at Joe & Seph’s

We currently import our popcorn kernels – we can’t get a good enough quality kernel in the UK yet unfortunately; it grows best in sunnier climates where it doesn’t rain. You tend to find them in the South of France, South American or South Africa, for example.

We will bring the kernels on site as well as fresh butter from the UK, and all the different ingredients from their optimum regions, so for example, if it’s goat cheese we’ll source that from the Loire Valley in France and cheddar cheese from Ireland.

We’ll pop the corn on site using some bespoke air popping machines that we've bought and have purposed for our needs. These adaptions help us to make sure that our kernels pop bigger than anyone else’s – that’s there’s no small pieces at the bottom. We have done a lot of R&D to prevent this and create a better-quality end product.  

By popping with air and not oil, it avoids that oil tainted taste, and it creates a healthier product. We will then combine with butter and sugar to create a caramel, and whichever ingredients are needed for that particular flavour. For example, our salted caramel includes sea salt flakes, and our gin and tonic flavour has real gin and tonic water added.

The popcorn then cools and is packaged on site into various shapes and sizes – from pouches to small gift bags and advent calendars. It then gets shipped out to our customers – many of which are in the UK, but we now also supply 19 other countries around the world. The company now boasts more than 80 Great Taste awards and has also won the Queen’s Award for Export.

With our product, we really want differentiate it from everyone else’s – better taste, bigger size and a better crunch. To do all those things in a more artisan way is challenging as a process.

But I'd say the biggest challenge with popcorn is probably around texture because that’s the thing everyone has an opinion on, more so than anything else. And when you’re adding in different kinds of ingredients, some popcorns will naturally become less crunchy.

We spend a lot of time making sure there’s consistency in our textures across all the flavours and that the popcorn ‘pops’ in the mouth, so that the customer is getting a really great experience.

There are essentially two methods to popcorn – coated and uncoated. For uncoated popcorn, it’s fried in hot oil and because we don’t do that, we do not benefit from the crunch that provides. Instead, we’re using hot air and essentially coating it in a wet caramel; so the knack lies in making sure the caramel sets and sets in a way where each individual piece is separated from another.

So the secret is one of process, more than anything else.

Many hands in many places

Our popcorn is genuinely handmade, but it’s frustrating what actually counts as handmade within food production. I have been to factories which are able to make this claim, when really there’s been one handmade stage in the whole process. With Joe & Seph’s there are many, many hands at different stages. That’s what ultimately gives us a point of difference – and it helps to get that impressive flavour on every piece.

We do still have machinery, of course, and we use it in the stages where there is no benefit of hands. Naturally, for a smaller company when you start, you can’t afford machinery and you tend to have more people; overtime you assign roles to machinery where human time is not best spent. For example, placing popcorn into bags is not a good use of time, but making the popcorn, that is where people are needed – in making it taste amazing and getting your ‘voice’ into the pieces.

So we have over time invested money into machinery to pack and bag and box, rather than removing manual processes where people are doing a great job.

We became SALSA accredited quite early on and we have some really great processes in place to ensure that every product that we make is ‘perfect’ – and we have not had any significant issues to date.

A large retailer started working with us recently and conducted an audit – and this has just elevated our standards even further. It has been great to see and work with them. We have also employed a new technical manager.

Over time, you get better and better at what you’re doing – improving your technical ability, your consistency and quality. But I wouldn’t say being a handmade process makes it riskier than a more automated process. Machines have pieces that can kind of fall off and cause more problems potentially. The trickiest thing about being handmade is consistency in flavour!

Trends and future focus

When we first started coming up with flavour ideas, it was really a case of whatever we could get our hands on in the kitchen cupboard. It then became much more customer-led – if someone asked, we’d have a go. Now we have more planned out tactics – we look to the market demands and where trends might be heading.

Right now we’re focused on affordable indulgence, which is a huge trend. People are looking to spend a bit more on a treat instead of lots of money on going out for a dinner or night out. So we’re exploring how we can deliver on that, making popcorn more enjoyable and fun, with dessert inspired ranges for example.

Popcorn plays well into the indulgence trend because it’s often linked to positive memories like watching a film at the cinema. People are usually transported back to a positive place when they eat a bag, so why not make it even more fun and exciting. That’s kind of what our whole range is about.

Our recent episode on Food Unwrapped and engaging with the media in general is another part of our strategy, to show people what we do here is premium and different. There are very few snacking brands left that are independent and family owned – so we have a nice story and I hope that it inspires other people out there making food in the kitchen to see what’s possible.

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