For Adam Sopher and his family, popcorn is a serious business — and their Joe & Seph products are having a radical impact in the F&B stands, too.
Words: Melissa Cogavin
In the UK, it’s easy to forget that developments in cuisine over the past two decades have been little short of seismic. London is now a world-class destination for the most discerning of foodies, littered, as it is, with top chefs and Michelin stars. One might reasonably assume that the trickle-down effect of satisfying this burgeoning appetite for upmarket nourishment might have influenced cinemas in a similar way. Certainly we are seeing in-cinema dining as a regular occurrence in many auditoria, specially adapted to include side tables for your antipasti and pizza and bottle holders for your chilled prosecco, unthinkable a decade ago. Though the challenges of eating in the dark, with your fingers, in reclining seats means there are limitations to the chef’s creativity, standards have been set and expectations higher than ever. The customer expects to be well fed now.
Poshing up the pick’n’mix?
Despite pizza and antipasti offerings in boutique cinemas, we haven’t seen a revolution to the same extent in the traditional offerings in the multiplex; nachos, hotdogs, pick ‘n’ mix remain the staples devoured every weekend. It is perhaps a matter of time before Rollover is forced to produce a vegan hot dog, such are the times we live in.
Popcorn, however, has experienced something of a renaissance and the appetite for this simple — and ancient — snack (remnants of popped corn have been found in Mexico dating to 3600BC) seems larger than ever. The snack boomed during the Great Depression and was reinvented during the Great Recession of the 2000s. One big success story in this area is Joe & Seph’s, a family-run company based in West London. I met with Adam Sopher, co-founder and director to understand how his family has so effectively captured the popcorn zeitgeist and what the cinema business can learn from his experiences.
With the sage words of Donald Rumsfeld ringing in my ears, I asked Adam to clarify the known knowns, and the known unknowns about his journey with popcorn. Initially, I was interested to hear about the personal and technical journey that led from that first breakthrough inexorably to the creation of astonishing flavours like Gin & Tonic popcorn.
“We pop them using hot air,” Adam explained profoundly, adding that popcorn is most often fried in hot oil, and that hot air process leaves no taint of oil in the product. Why reinvent the wheel, I wondered? “The reason this works is that inside the kernel is a bit of moisture. If you blast the kernel with enough hot air it pops by itself; there’s no oil or butter in the product which is a lot healthier.” Is this a patented process that Joe & Seph’s invented? “Not our invention, but it’s a process used a lot in the US. In the UK, it’s cheaper and easier to fry it first, then spray with water, which contains seasoning. We weren’t keen on that method, and the bonus with air popping, is that you get much bigger pieces of corn. No bits come off which is what tends to happen in the frying process, so there is less wastage.
“Cheese is the base of all our flavours, which is turned to either a liquid or caramel. Nobody else is doing that and it means that you get a totally different taste to other popcorn. All of this is done because we want to make it more of a premium product, more interesting, and we do that by introducing a constantly evolving variety of flavours.”
The magic lightbulb moment…
How did the family’s pursuit of popcorn perfection come about? Lightbulb moments like these are once in a lifetime. “We are known as these popcorn aficionados now, but before this happened Dad ran an electrical wholesale business and I used to work in the head office of electrical retailers Dixons. We all love food in our family. Dad was travelling to an exhibition in the US and brought back some American popcorn with him and we all loved it. It was nothing special, cheese or caramel flavour, but the quality was so much better, it was handmade, delicious. He brought more and more back every time he went back to the US. The fifth year he brought back his entire 23kg luggage allowance of popcorn.” That was 15 years ago when the popcorn market in the UK was — forgive the pun — stale. “We looked around” Adam continued, “and nobody was doing anything like what we had seen in the US, so when Dad retired, we just went for it.”
Fast forward to 2019 and Joe & Seph’s has received 41 Great Taste Awards, the foodie equivalent of the Oscars, so it is fair to say that Adam and his family have reinvented popcorn in the UK to extraordinary acclaim — and it’s remained a family business. “Dad does production and finance, I’m responsible for sales, Mum does operations and payroll and my brother handles the export business.”
Buying-in to affordable indulgence
Joe & Seph’s has tapped into the same market that event cinema identified about 13 years ago; the affluent middle classes who have money to spend on a night out at the cinema and the many other new F&B offerings that are now available. It has transformed cinemas and the whole experience, which badly needed some attention. Popcorn is big business these days, but there are few real competitors in the cinema space. What sets Joe & Seph’s apart? As is almost always the case with a success story, it comes down to perfect timing. Adam agreed, “When we launched the company, affordable indulgence was key. We were living in a recession environment, cinema was a treat at that time, popcorn like ours is a treat.” It’s well-known that despite the worst recession in 80 years, cinema attendance in the UK remained constant; people may not have been booking holidays but they still went to the movies.
They have no real competitors in the cinema market, Adam explained, but there has been a positioning war with other popcorn suppliers, who occupy the retail market, the kind of popcorn to have with your lunch, for example.
“Our space is different. It’s not easy, it’s difficult to make the product the way we make it,” Adam went on. “We’ve done a lot of work with cinemas on this. We have produced a lot of data analysis and our findings demonstrate to cinemas that they will make extra revenue on special items like luxury popcorn.“
Marketing support, too
Joe & Seph’s enterprising instincts don’t stop at a rainbow of flavours, they also offer advent calendars, dipping sauces, subscription services, online ordering, export to 18 territories and so on. I admitted to Adam I couldn’t think of another company that has diversified so well given the static nature of popcorn as a product. What’s next on the horizon?
Adam wouldn’t be drawn on specifics but he hinted that 2019 contained new products, new flavours and lots of new initiatives. “It’s really exciting and we will continue to grow our brand into other spaces.”
For Adam and his hard-working family, their kernel of an idea really has exploded into a booming popcorn empire, with a multitude of flavours appealing to everybody, coming from a business emulated by nobody, and all in a cinema near you.
Adam on… the theory behind the flavour
As a technology title, readers may expect projectors deconstructed and examined, but perhaps not the inner workings of popcorn. What of the methodology behind flavour? “This is called ‘food sequencing’ and basically there are a few bits to this,” said Adam, “People don’t like eating food and getting everything at the same time. We want flavours one by one. For example, caramel, pepper and chili flavour popcorn contains those three but you get them in the order of caramel first, then pepper, and finally chili. How it’s done is a trade secret I’m afraid, but it’s less about the equipment and more about the timings, the processes and the temperatures.”
The flavour choice has grown to a mouth-watering number: Pina Colada, Cheese on Toast, Truffle Oil and Orange Marmalade being just a few. How is the selection made for cinemas? Is it based on a few key flavours? “We tend to offer some best sellers that we know will do well,” exlained Adam, “and we will work with exhibitors over time to expand the selection.” From salt, sugar and for the daring, salt-and-sugar flavours, Joe & Seph’s has reinvented the snack completely. How do they come up with all these flavours? Adam laughed. “Usually it starts with Dad rummaging in the kitchen at home at 3am. We come in at a more sensible hour and find samples on our desks. The flavours to start with were all down to his palate. More recently we have got to a point where people are offering their products for us to try.Marmite flavour is divisive, of course, but it’s going down well. We’ve also just created the world’s first alcoholic popcorn for a bar in London which wanted us to do something fun for the summer. It’s a gin bar and they asked if we could make it work in popcorn. Dad found a bottle of gin in the kitchen and spent the afternoon working on it.” Is there a strategy to it? “We do a lot of shows and we sample food at exhibitions, that’s a good way to test the market. We’ve done focus groups too, but the thing that really influences a flavour is whether people will part with money for it.”