You might find it hard to conceive how a cement mixer and Top Gear were involved in creating some of the tastiest gourmet popcorn available, but PROPERCORN founder Cassandra Stavrou says that these were vital to creating the first few batches, “we got a cement mixer, because I thought we have to tumble it somehow. Then I had watched on Top Gear about how they spray paint cars is using the finest mist possible through this car sprayer, so I ordered one of those online and used that to apply the oil. It was really rooky but that’s invariably the way it is when you’re starting. You kind of figure it out as you go along.”
What resulted was a perfect storm in a packet; a healthy, convenient snack with diverse flavours and an artistic touch. Everything the modern consumer craves. So, how did Cassandra go from spotting the gap in the market for a healthy and fashionable alternative to crisps to creating a successful brand that sells 2 million bags of popcorn a month? During a recent trip to Dublin I met with this brown-eyed Londoner to find out.
Cassandra’s father passed away when she was just 16 years old, and although she remembers him as a hopeless cook she says some of her best memories are the hours they spent making popcorn, experimenting with ingredients and seasonings, impatiently waiting for each kernel to pop so that they could try their latest recipe. While she had already popped the idea to start a popcorn business, Cassandra, now 32, admits there also was a bit of “fortuitous circumstance” involved.
“When I told my mum about the idea she reminded me that the last present my dad bought me before he died was a popcorn machine. I’m not fatalistic but it was like okay, this is good sign. So I guess that gave me the confidence to quit my job.”
Launching the business in 2011 with best friend and business partner, Ryan Kohn, PROPERCORN has has carved itself an impressive niche in a crowded marketplace, achieving over £10m sales in 2015. Though Cassandra says there were no shortcuts to success, “it really is just going through all the various motions of trying to get the product to as good as it can possibly be, trying to design the brand, raising the money.” She moved back home, working every temp job she could get to save as much money as possible, and began popping the first batches in her kitchen.
“It was initially just going to the local supermarket, buying lots of seasonings, crushing them, trying to get them to stick somehow,” says Cassandra. Finding a manufacturer that could deliver the ‘proper’ impact of flavour was one hurdle, getting the notoriously male dominated manufacturing industry to take her seriously was another. “Being a young girl going into the world of manufacturing they were just like ‘who are you? Go home’.” One manufacturer was a bit more open, and it was with his help, a cement mixer and a car spray paint gun that PROPERCORN was born.
“Our big break was Google HQ, which was an amazing one to get first,” says Cassandra. “They ordered 1,000 bags and out of all their 48 snacks we were their fastest moving. You always need someone to take a bit of a punt, and I think our passion came across”. “It’s one of those chicken and eggs situations where a lot of retailers will say can I see some sales data and I’m like I need someone to sell it first!”. Now PROPERCORN sit the shelves of more than 10,000 retailers, from corner shops to high-end retail giants Waitrose and Whole Foods.
Not so long ago snacks were treated as an afterthought, now the healthy snack market is booming. “It’s not really an alternative anymore. I think people expect brands to deliver more and more on that front,” says Cassandra. Popcorn in particular has become the new ‘it’ snack, and PROPERCORN are at the forefront of reinventing this cinema classic. Cassandra says what they offer is a healthy snack that offers a lot more than a celery stick,
“PROPERCORN is delicious and guilt-free. There shouldn’t have to be a compromise. Snacks should deliver on both health and taste.”
“Something that I speak about it a lot is that people understand what popcorn is. It’s not like kale, which I love, but a lot of people don’t understand what kale is. Everyone knows popcorn so it makes it very accessible as a healthy snack,” she adds.
Cassandra says PROPERCORN’s philosophy ‘Done Properly’ is what sets them apart from the competition. They apply this ethos to everything from the quality of corn they use, GM free ‘butterfly’ corn FYI, to their flavour innovation. The signature collection includes unique flavours such as Sour Cream & Black Pepper, Fiery Worchester Sauce & Sund-dried Tomato, and Sweet Coconut & Vanilla. The newest flavour Smooth Peanut Butter & Almond is Cassandra’s current favourite. “Just because it was such a feat to get it off the ground. Everyone said you can’t do it because when you crush nuts they turn into a paste. But we found a way to reduce 83% of the fat from the nuts which turned them into a powder,” she explains. “I really wanted to do salt and vinegar but there is something about the flavour combination that just hasn’t worked yet. I am still determined to try and crack that one.”
Right from the start Cassandra knew the brand had to look as delicious as it tasted. Using the last of her savings she spent £6,000 on a leading packaging designer, but the designs just didn’t feel right. “I made the decision to essentially throw it in the bin and start again, which was a really difficult thing to do, it was basically all my savings.” With the help of an illustrator friend Cassandra set about designing the packaging of her dreams. “We evolved them a little bit since then, but for the most part they have stayed the same.”
The bright, playful, distinctly illustrated bags of popcorn are just the start of PROPERCORN’s eye catching marketing says Cassandra,
“we don’t just want to exist as a functional brand we want to be creative and interesting to look at.”
A £1m marketing initiative ‘Project Pattern’ saw a bold popcorn kernel pattern dress everything from buildings and pavements, to shabby phone boxes and buses. Cassandra says seeing her brand on a buses all over London was one of the biggest ‘pinch me’ moments so far in her career. Creativity and collaboration is part of the culture at PROPERCORN, such as their work with photographer and stylist Jess Bonham. “I said instead of doing generic pack shots let’s treat it almost like an accessory or a handbag and do really cool photography.”
Cassandra sees PROPERCORN as “a lifestyle brand, not just a supermarket brand”, and she has played on the natural synergy she sees between food and fashion to enhance this.
“We very naturally built a relationship with the British Fashion Council, and they asked us to become official snack of London Fashion Week. It’s so cool to see Anna Wintour and others eating it on the front row.”
“We just made sure that everyone backstage and the designers who hadn’t gone to bed because they were working on their shows were munching on PROPERCORN.” The connection has cemented PROPERCORN’s image as the on-trend healthy lifestyle snack.
So what’s next for Propercorn? Cassandra reveals that they have some really exciting new products in the pipeline, and that they have ambitions “to be the number one premium popcorn brand worldwide.” Already sold in ten European countries, cracking the rest of Europe is a priority, followed by the US. “Ireland is our most exciting market, in that the growth we are seeing here is just so phenomenal. It just really seems to be striking a chord.”
Creativity is one thing she is passionate about, the other is entrepreneurism. Last year she set up ‘Propercorn Platform’, a mentorship programme whereby 16 to 24 year olds to could submit their own business proposals. “We are not that far from the starting line so although there are lots of things like this out there what really sets us apart is that we can really relate to what they are going through.” On the advice she gives to these budding young entrepreneurs Cassandra says, “don’t dither too much you just have to get on with it. There are so many books out there about how to start a business and that’s all great, but ultimately you just need to take a leap of faith if you really believe in it.”
A leap of faith, a cement mixer and Top Gear; the alternative toolkit of an entrepreneur.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.