Five years after launching, family business Joe & Seph's gourmet popcorn now exports to over 19 countries around the world, including the home of popcorn, the USA. Director Adam Sopher tells BQ how they started exporting and the advice they'd give to others looking to follow in their footsteps.
What does your company do?
Joe & Seph’s are a multi-award winning producer of gourmet popcorn and caramel sauces, in a range of over 40 varieties.
When was your company launched, who by and why?
We’re a family business who launched in 2010, founded by Joseph Sopher (the brand’s namesake and head chef), along with his wife Jackie and their eldest son, Adam.
Joe & Seph’s was born out of Joseph’s frequent business trips to the USA, where he would bring back gourmet popcorn for friends and family. As an enthusiastic amateur cook, he wondered whether he could create his own version of gourmet popcorn and started by air-popping the corn, before layering smooth caramel infused with various natural ingredients – by chance he stumbled across a unique “flavour-sequencing” technique whereby different flavour elements would unlock as you crunch on the popcorn. After taking early retirement, Joseph and Jackie decided to take the popcorn to a food show to see what the public thought and after selling out in two days they decided to start the business.
The popcorn first launched in Selfridges in April 2011, and Joe & Seph’s was born!
How long has the company been exporting?
Our first international stockist was a small distributor in France, in 2011, who we still work closely with today.
What do you currently export, and where to?
We export both our popcorn and caramel sauces to over 19 countries around the world. We currently export to countries including: France, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Dubai, Qatar, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Australia, Canada, Spain, Sweden and even the home of popcorn, the USA!
What motivated you to start selling overseas, and how long did it take?
The market for premium popcorn in the UK at the time was quite small (although it is growing rapidly), so it was important to expand our horizons to international markets where we targeted premium department stores and hotels. Because our products were being sold in places with an excellent international reputation, such as Selfridges and Harrods in the UK, it added a lot of credibility in other countries. The process didn’t take too long at all, once we had found the right distribution partner.
What is the easiest part of exporting?
I wouldn’t say that exporting is easy by any means, but we’re lucky in that British food has an excellent reputation and is in high demand internationally – which definitely helps. In the Middle East and the Far East in particular, there is a real demand for quality British products and our products have quite a British feel about them in terms of the flavour combinations and the fact that they all proudly state “Handmade in England” on the packaging.
And the most challenging part?
For us, because we don’t use any preservatives on our popcorn, shelf life is often seen as a barrier. We’ve managed to overcome this however by air-freighting our products and working on smaller order sizes, to ensure the stock is fresh when it arrives. Now when the issue comes up when talking with buyers, we have numerous case studies showing that we can overcome the issue, notably by the fact that we successfully export as far as Japan and Australia without trouble!
Have language barriers, currency changes, etiquette and culture ever caused you any difficulties? How did you overcome them?
It’s very important to be aware of culturaletiquette differences when dealing with international buyers. This can be anything from the way you accept a person’s business card, to how you greet a visitor to your stand at a trade show. You tend to pick up local customs and the way of doing things when you’re at trade shows and through networking events, and if you’re unsure it’s always good to ask other exhibitors and organisations like UKTI who have a better understanding of such things.
From a currency changes point of view, that can be a real challenge but we try to be flexible depending on the situation, and support our customers as much as possible.
Did you get any support when you wanted to trade abroad? Who from, and was it helpful?
Yes, we worked very closely with UKTI who were fantastic in organising international trade shows, introducing you to buyers and providing useful information on international markets.
That would definitely be my main advice to any business looking to start exporting is to get in touch with your regional UKTI representative!
It’s also really important to network with other businesses to find out a little more about other markets – most people will have had similar experiences so sharing your expertise with others can be incredibly useful.
What advice would you give to someone just starting to explore overseas markets?
Do lots of research and ask lots of questions. Trade shows, while often expensive, have been really important for us in finding new business internationally, so I would definitely recommend these. There are often grants available for smaller businesses too, so it’s worth speaking to your UKTI representative.
Where next? What markets are you looking into and where do you see the company in 5 years’ time?
We’re seeing good growth in Scandinavia in particular, as well as Germany where we’ve just started working with a retail and food service distributor.
We’re also building the brand in the USA and Canada which is no easy feat for a popcorn product given the amount of competition but so far the response has been great!
Currently export contributes to 18% of total sales, but our target is for this to increase to 30% by 2018.
In five years’ time, we want Joe & Seph’s to be recognised as the best-tasting popcorn in the world!