The fun of rolling out gourmet popcorn

Popcorn Shed founders Laura Jackson and her cousin Sam Feller (Popcorn Shed)
Popcorn Shed founders Laura Jackson and her cousin Sam Feller (Popcorn Shed)

Laura Jackson knows more than most what it takes to incubate a kernel of a business idea — turnover at her gourmet snack brand Popcorn Shed is set to pass the £2 million mark this year.

It all started after Jackson and her cousin and co-founder Sam Feller holidayed in Chicago and New York in 2014.

“We discovered the world of gourmet popcorn — it set our tongues drooling and our entrepreneurial minds going,” the entrepreneur explains.

“We were bowled over with how tasty the popcorn was and how many different flavour combinations there were across the pond.” After flying back to London, the duo kept thinking about popcorn.

“We wanted to start a business that would make people smile — popcorn is associated with happy memories, like watching a movie , sharing with work colleagues or snacking with friends on a long car journey.”

It was a side hustle at first: Jackson, 38, was working in digital project management — “making sure people could subscribe to binge TV and keeping their online banking working,” she explains — while Feller, also 38, worked in commercial property.

For six months the duo spent their weekends, evenings and annual leave in Jackson’s mum’s kitchen experimenting with popcorn recipes — breaking part of it in the process. “First we broke her hob, then we set an air popper on fire by mistakenly adding oil,” Jackson admits.

“After that, we were banished from the kitchen and went to the garden shed.”

That shed helped give the business its name.

After a year of taste trials and branding work, the cousins handed in their notice in September 2016, and found a factory to outsource production to (“there was too much to do with sales, marketing and finance so we test and make recipes, which we give to our manufacturing partner to focus on what we were best at”).

Their first recipes were Pecan Pie, Pop N Choc and Salted Caramel — still sold today — which they initially tested on a focus groups made up of strangers who answered a Gumtree ad. They worked on some branding — “it was terrible”, Jackson admits — and gave a few cases of product to local independent shops to test out interest.

“Some sold, some we had to tweak — one flavour, called Zebra, was binned because no one knew what it was, but the rest sold really well.”

That interest gave the pair the confidence to invest — first via two £25,000 Government Start Up loans, which paid for a designer to make professional packaging.

What makes Popcorn Shed different from rivals? “Everything is handmade in small batches, so our caramel is made with butter and sugar, nutty flavours have real nuts — supermarket popcorn is mass-produced and powder-coated.”

Still, the early days were rocky: Popcorn Shed’s lack of experience on an early production run saw them use the wrong packaging which meant it went off. “We had to waste a week’s worth of production. Still, we had a fun photo shoot bathing in the [bad] popcorn which we sent out to [the media] to try and get some noise around the brand.”

Today the popcorn flavours include chicken vindaloo, macaroni cheese, katsu curry and bacon and pineapple Hawaiian pizza; the brand is sold on Ocado, in Harrods, on offer in Google and Meta’s offices, in gift shops around the UK and in 25 countries overseas. “Export wasn’t on our agenda but we discovered there was strong demand for gourmet British foods — we had huge interest from Europe at trade fairs and it grew from there.”

Popcorn Shed now sends pallets to Japan, the UAE, and US. “Popcorn is one of the lightest things to ship, but incredibly bulky so it’s expensive. Even so, we’re getting new export interest every day, it’s one of the strongest parts of our business.”

Popcorn Shed’s six staff work in Finchley Central, north London. Last year alone the firm sold 1.3 million packs of popcorn and launched eight different flavours.

Still, some jobs are “all hands on deck”. “I moonlight as an amateur copywriter,” Jackson laughs. “Behind each of our advent calendar windows was a film quote for customers to guess. Late one night I found famous film quotes from the internet and sent the list straight to our designer.

“On the first day of December we got a tirade of customer complaints saying things like,‘you’ve ruined Christmas’ and ‘my child will have nightmares for ever’ — because for some bizarre reason I’d put the film quote behind door one as ‘I see dead people’ while behind door two was, ‘Kill Bill’. I was incredibly upset by my ridiculously stupid mistake!”

Today the business is still self-financed, supported mainly by invoice financing and bank overdrafts. Popcorn Shed is targeting £2 million turnover this year, with celebrity fans including Katherine Ryan, Alexandra Burke and Duncan Bannatyne.

The founders are aiming to be the No 1 popcorn gifting brand in Europe, and possibly move into other foods too. But Jackson still loves her kernels: “I eat a lot of blue cheese popcorn,” she says, “I’ll never get sick of it.”