How a popcorn company grew into export markets

How-to Hub talks to Joe & Seph's co-founder Adam Sopher about his company's foray into exporting.

Talk a bit about the company, how you grew the sales, and when and why you decided to export.

Joe & Seph’s Gourmet Popcorn started in November 2010 using six recipes of popcorn that my Dad (Joseph) had made for years at home. We thought his popcorn was unique and so took it to BBC Food Show in London to see if everyone else thought so too. It was an incredible success and within four months we were listed in Selfridges in London!

Our popcorn is very different to others out there – we use all-natural ingredients; we air-pop the corn kernels as opposed to frying it so there’s no oil; we layer our flavours into the popcorn so you taste one flavour after another eg. with our caramel, pepper & chilli popcorn you get the flavours in sequence with a kick of chilli after seven seconds; and we also make lots of really innovative flavours including our famous goats cheese & black pepper.

We decided to export when top food halls in Europe started approaching us wanting our popcorn…. it wasn’t a strategy as such! This is still our approach today, although we are much more focused on certain countries as opposed to just listing in one store in each country. Now UK Trade & Industry are encouraging us to export even more, and we are currently exhibiting at a trade show called Anuga in Germany, showing off our gourmet popcorn to the whole of Europe!

How did you learn about the logistical processes that are key to international shipping?

By speaking to lots of people! Some shippers are really helpful and will guide you as to what is allowed and not allowed for each country. A lot of international retailers will also use ‘consolidators’ in the UK whose job it is to collect shipments from all over the UK and ship them all out. These
consolidators are really helpful and if you ask nicely enough will guide you through the whole process.

What did you learn about any relevant duties/taxes information, customs/clearance procedures that you needed to be aware of?

The Middle East for example require a printed production date and end date (not just a best before date as is required in the UK) on every pack of our popcorn. Canada require 14 lines of nutritional information which is much more detailed than the UK where currently you don’t actually have to publish any nutritional information at all!

Talk about your first shipment. Where did it go? How big was it in weight/cash value? Did it go well?

Our first ever shipment was to France for a fantastic store there called La Grande Epicerie. It was a nice-sized order and it was our first learning of how to calculate shipping costs. We found that although our gourmet popcorn is very light, the shippers use a formula of weight and volume to calculate the cost so shipping wasn’t quite a cheap as we thought it would be!

How much does export account for turnover today? What is your biggest export market? Are you looking to go into other countries?

Export is currently around 10 per cent of our business. Our fastest growing markets are currently jointly France and the Netherlands, but we also export to Switzerland, the Middle East and Scandinavia. We are looking to export our gourmet popcorn to all of the best retailers, cinemas, hotels and bars across the world so always looking to expand our distribution into other
countries which is really exciting!

What is your distribution arrangement for your US exports? Talk me through the supply chain.

We receive the order from the US and then ship the pallets to a UK-based consolidator who then merges our orders with lots of others and ships out to the US customer. The supply chain is therefore pretty simple. The complexity is ensuring our popcorn is labelled correctly (e.g. ounces not grams!) and that we have the relevant US government approvals.

How much more about shipping/logistics do you feel you need to learn?

Lots! I don’t think anyone knows everything about every country’s rules and regulations. They are all so different and constantly changing.

What advice would you give to small companies starting out in shipping?

Insist on proforma payment for all international shipments. Most international distributors and retailers are comfortable with this and not only does it really help cash flow, but it also means that there’s no potential for bad debts outside of the UK which can be costly and time intensive to resolve.

Are there any other stories you have about shipping?

One large shipment we sent got quarantined in customs as the relevant paperwork wasn’t completed in time by the customer – we did everything we could but the customer didn’t get their certificates in time. The goods ended up sitting there for so long (six months) that the shelf life on our popcorn passed! Our big learning here is to make sure you communicate everything through emails so that you can refer back to them if things ever do go wrong like this.

Further reading on exports

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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