Twenty years ago, Joseph Sopher filed away an idea at the back of his mind that has now launched him into a second career – and an eye-poppingly successful one. Sopher is the co-founder of Joe & Seph’s, a premium popcorn brand that only months after its launch was stocked in Selfridges, Harrods and Harvey Nichols.
The company, which now has 30 employees, including Sopher’s wife and co-founder Jackie, 51, and their son Adam, 29, is expected to achieve a £2.5million turnover this financial year. Sopher’s idea dates from when he was working with his father, who owned Bridisco, an electrical wholesaler business. He was in the United States on business and stuck for a gift to bring home and came across a popcorn shop. “I thought: ‘That’s unusual, I’ll take that back’ and everyone loved it,” he explains. “Every time I went back, people said: ‘Can you bring some more of that popcorn?’ Once, before baggage restrictions, I brought back about 20 kilos just for people at work! “So it was an idea that parked at the back of my mind. ‘If it’s that popular’, I thought, ‘why has no one done it over here?’ But I knew nothing about popcorn – or about the food business for that matter – and I was busy enough doing what I was doing.”
Sopher, now 56, started work importing fans from his father’s native India during a particularly hot summer. “I was given the task of trying to sell these things, which wasn’t such a challenge, as no one else had any. I was straight out of college thinking what on earth am I going to learn at university that I’m not learning now?” He joined Bridisco and, over the 30 years he was there grew the turnover from £2.5million to £150million. “When my father retired, I took it on for its last 14 years. It was very, very successful but unfortunately, in 2008, it became a victim to the recession.”
For two years afterwards, Sopher was at a loss about what to do. He had tried to make popcorn successfully but admits he made “a complete mess of it”. He finally worked out the knack of getting caramel to stick to popcorn without it shrivelling and moved on to coconut popcorn, which worked – “it was a bit of fun for friends and family”.
In September 2010, Sopher had his “eureka” moment. “I was making some popcorn and forgot to put in an ingredient. I was in too much of a rush, and thought I’d throw in the ingredient as I didn’t have time to cook it from scratch. That’s when I discovered there’s a way of broadly controlling how the flavours are released. All our popcorn is tasted in a sort of pre-ordained sequence.”
A month later, Sopher realised it was six weeks to the BBC Good Food Show, which he used to visit for fun, and booked a stand. The Sophers designed a brand name and packaging, took a crash course in food manufacture and, four days before the show, rented a commercial kitchen. “We had no idea whether the recipes would translate from a few hundred grams made in a domestic oven to hundreds of kilos in a commercial oven,” Sopher admits. “We made 200kg, but I thought there’s no way this will all sell”.
The popcorn was a hit, as the family realised as people queued 10-deep to buy. High on success, Sopher contacted Selfridges, Harrods and Harvey Nichols, which all wanted to stock him, but turned down Fortnum & Mason, which wanted an own-brand. “We launched with six flavours at the show and by the time they got to Selfridges in March 2011, we had 10 flavours and they took all 10.”
Joe & Seph’s was popcorn provider to the Olympics in 2012 and is now stocked throughout Europe, Middle East, Far East and Australia. It is also stocked in hotels – including Claridges, which started serving the goat’s cheese and black pepper popcorn with drinks – and cinemas Picturehouse and Cineworld. British Airways and Thompsonfly also sell it, while easyJet will soon. The company has achieved 11 gold Great Taste Awards. “My goal was to see if I could make the best-tasting popcorn on the market – and that’s what we strive for,” says the father-of-three, a member of both Radlett United Synagogue and Hendon Sephardi Synagogue. “Everything is made by pastry chefs – we don’t use machines – and they cook it as if they are cooking a gourmet meal.”
• Details: www.joeand sephs.co.uk