Laura Jackson is the founder of Popcorn Shed, a gourmet popcorn brand, whose aim is to be the number one gourmet popcorn gifting brand in Europe. We caught up with her to find out why popcorn has become the must have snack in 2021, how the company fared through lockdown and where and when the idea popped into her head!
What did you do before you decided to set up your own company and what inspired you to make the career change?
I spent seven years in a Fortune Global 500 company doing digital project management, making sure you can subscribe for binge TV and keeping your online banking working (most of the time!). Alongside this I ran a string of side projects (gingerbread pop-up bakery, singles tasting menu dinner parties and country-manor weekends away for young professionals (where had 3 marriages as a result!). My real passion, however, is great tasting food.
My passion for sharing my food creations begun at the age of 9, selling homemade slush puppies to neighbours during a hot summer. I also sold fudge at food exhibitions during my time at university. My first job as a graduate “in the real world” was traversing the streets of London and ‘cold calling’ face-to-face in restaurants and cafes selling iced coffee (during what turned out to be one of the hottest summers on record!).
My cousin Sam and I during a trip to the US, discovered gourmet popcorn, and on returning to the UK we realised that great tasting and high-quality popcorn was not easy to source and spotted a gap in the mainstream market. We had always flirted with the idea of running our own family food business together, and in a moment of madness around our 30th birthdays we took a leap of faith (early life crisis) in 2016 from a ‘kernel of an idea’ I have been POPping up a storm with the launch with a luxury gourmet popcorn brand Popcorn Shed.
Was it always destined to be popcorn, or did you ever want to create another new brand of snack?
Our families are food obsessed people and it has had a huge influence on our upbringing. All of our family celebrations have inevitably been food based, and we manage to bring food to every important occasion of our lives. Our families have a rich culinary heritage, and good quality food is a very important part of our lives and tradition. You could say it is in our blood.
We did trial a few different snack ideas, however, after a trip to the US, we discovered gourmet popcorn and we were bowled over with how tasty the popcorn was and how many different flavour combinations there were across the pond.
When we came back to the UK feeling inspired, we set ourselves a challenge to make the finest and tastiest gourmet popcorn in the world, using flavour concoctions and textural inclusions that tasted better than the ones in the States.
We wanted to start a business that would have a positive effect on the world, make people smile and prioritise flavour and quality. We have always loved popcorn as it brings people together; Popcorn is associate with happy memories like watching a movie, sharing with work colleagues, or snacking with friends on a long car journey.
How do you come up with your new flavours- please tell us about the process of launching a new one.
We kick around ideas in the office all the time and research key trends.
The initial concept is still done at home in the kitchen. Then once we’re happy with the flavour profile we then work together with our factory to scale up the recipe and a round of factory trials.
As you've mentioned, you set the company up with your cousin, so at what point did you realise you were the perfect team to launch a new brand?
We’re very close, more like brother and sister so although we do fight, it’s never personal. It’s always for the good of the business.
I think running your own business has enough stresses so having a business partner who you can fully trust and rely on is a must. We have complimentary skills but the same work ethic, so it works very well.
What was the inspiration behind the name? Did you start by making your popcorn in a shed?!
Very much a kitchen table start up. We spent months in my mother’s home kitchen experimenting with popcorn recipes and managed to break a popcorn machine and a hob in the process! As recipe development continued to create the perfect tasting popcorn, so did the mess and we were banished to the garden shed in my mother’s back garden. The family started referring to the shed as the ‘Popcorn Shed’, and that’s how we stumbled upon a name for the the business.
How did your business fare during lockdown with a rise in at home movie nights?
Pre Covid most of our business was wholesale, B2B and direct to cinemas, shops, distributors etc. Overnight this revenue stream went quiet as traditional customers closed their doors.
We had to quickly pivot and become a multichannel retailer almost overnight. After the initial panic we pivoted away from B2B wholesale to B2C direct to consumer focus, diverting all resources to digital marketing and getting our website up to scratch to sell to consumer directly. As a result, we have seen online sales grow 250% month on month. We were on track to launch some new products; however we have put those projects on hold for now and have redistributed the budgets to online advertising.
Do you think more people will opt for an at home movie night with your popcorn even though the cinemas are open again?
I miss the cinema experience. I’m definitely sick of staying at home! I think people need a change of scenery and the cinema luxury is something that people will enjoy again.
You have branched out into vegan flavours so are these as popular as your non vegan flavours?
The premium vegan snack category is growing more than ever and customers are constantly looking for new and exciting snacks to try. 12 million UK residents will identify as Vegetarian, Vegan or Pescatarian by 2021 (23% of the population). The most common question we get from our consumers is ‘ What flavours or products are vegan?’ Our vegan flavours are in our bestsellers.
Why do you think gourmet popcorn is so popular now?
It’s such a positive AND versatile product. Popcorn can be healthy, it can be indulgent, it can be sweet, or savoury, it can be a simple snack or given as a gourmet gift. The humble popcorn snack has been ‘reinvented’
What is next for you and the brand?
We have been awarded 6+ Great Taste Awards (the Oscars of the food world). We sell all over the world (25+ countries). A growing portfolio of wild and delicious products. A growing team of 5+ popcorn obsessed individuals. Sold in well-known outlets such as Ocado, John Lewis, Harrods etc.
Ambitions... total popcorn domination.
Making Popcorn Shed the number one Gourmet Popcorn gifting brand in Europe. We have only just started!
We have huge aspirations to grow and would like to become a national, household brand.
If you were sharing popcorn with others then it’s probably because you are offering up your ideas along with others in a more collaborate approach in your professional life. Even if you are inspired, it’s important to remember that you still need to put in the hard work in order for your new idea to materialise. When the popcorn burns in your dreamscape, perhaps you have missed out on a recent opportunity. It might be wise to think about ways in which you can seize the next opportunity that comes your way rather than letting it pass you by...