Shaper: Adam Sopher

Show aired on 12th March 2016

Transcript

Elliot Moss
The enormous and exhilarating sound of Sing Sing Sing from the Benny Goodman Orchestra, inspired by a concert I went to earlier this week at the Royal Academy of Music where the great Keith Nichols was ensuring that that band played this track absolutely brilliantly – phenomenal. Thank you and hello, this is me, Elliot Moss bringing you Jazz Shapers here on Jazz FM. Jazz Shapers is the place where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul alongside their equivalents in the world of business, a Business Shaper. And my Business Shaper today is Adam Sopher; he is the co-founder of Joe & Seph’s the gourmet popcorn business and I am actually going to be tasting some when we start talking to him and I am sure I will have a mouthful and I apologise in advance but it’s amazing, they taste fantastic. You will be hearing lots from Adam very shortly. In addition to hearing from Adam, you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya, some words of advice for your business and then there’s the music and there is some fantastic music today including Nina Simone, Tubby Hayes and this from Ray Charles.

Ray Charles with Alexander’s Ragtime Band. Adam Sopher is my Business Shaper today here on Jazz Shapers, he is the co-founder of Joe & Seph’s Gourmet Popcorn and I am looking right square in the eye of a gourmet popcorn chef and connoisseur bag of popcorn. I must admit actually I have already had some. This is the Belgium white chocolate infused with Madagascan vanilla bean variety and it is delicious. Adam, thank you for joining me.

Adam Sopher
Thanks very much for inviting us.

Elliot Moss
Tell me why I am sitting here with you and we are talking about popcorn. How did that happen? How does a young man like you who had been working at Deloittes and Dixons end up making popcorn for a living?

Adam Sopher
Well do you know what it was my dad’s recipes for years and years and years. So my dad is called Joseph and so the brand Joe and Seph’s is actually a play on his name, we miss spelt it and split it into two because he made, he is our chef, he made us popcorn as children for years and for years we wondered why no-one else made fantastic flavours. I mean we have gin and tonic flavour, goats cheese and black pepper and we never understood why and he retired and I was sort of ready to move on from Dixons and we thought well let’s have a go and see what people think and that was it, we started this journey at a consumer show in Kensington Olympia in London. Turned up with a car load of popcorn, hoped for the life of us that it would sell because we couldn’t eat that much popcorn ourselves and it sold and it went mad and that was the beginning of Joe & Seph’s.

Elliot Moss
And when you were working in the other world, the non-entrepreneurial world although obviously Deliottes are a fantastic business and so is Dixons but when it wasn’t for yourself. Did you have an inkling you would eventually start your own business. Was there a sense of ‘I know this isn’t quite for me even though I am okay and I am enjoying it’. Did you know that and if you did, where did that thought come from?

Adam Sopher
I, yes. I think I always knew I wanted to do something myself. I reckon I was probably one of the biggest nightmares to manage. All of my managers must have struggled because I was always hungry to do more and always was frustrated with big corporations and the time it took to do things and I think all these things sort of boiled over and I realised that the only way that I was ever going to be able to do this was to do something on our own because you have that freedom to implement things very quickly. In terms of where it came from, my dad was an entrepreneur and his dad was an entrepreneur so I think it probably runs in the genes a bit.

Elliot Moss
And that business, your father’s business was a totally different thing?

Adam Sopher
Totally different yeah. So he used to run an electrical wholesale business and then food became his thing and if you meet my dad you will realise that food is his thing to be fair.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out what Adam Sopher’s things are; the co-founder of Joe & Seph’s the gourmet popcorn business. Time for some more music, this is To Love Somebody from Nina Simone.

That was Nina Simone with her cover, you may not know this, her cover of To Love Somebody, written by Barry and Robin Gibbs of Bee Gees fame. So there you go if you didn’t know that, now you do. Adam Sopher is my Business Shaper, co-founder of Joe & Seph’s the lovely popcorn people. This business is now obviously it’s a few million pounds of turnover which is fantastic but just go right back to the beginning. So you had this idea and that’s all very well and good and you say ‘I’m unmanageable and I want to work for myself’. Actually making it happen Adam is not easy so just beyond the it sold really well at the trade fair. How did you then take it on to become a sort of scalable business?

Adam Sopher
So do you know when we started, so that first batch that was made for that show was made in a kind of rent by the hour kitchen. You can actually go to these places, clean them, cook, clean them and leave and that was made by the three of us and on that stand at the show was four of us standing there and selling it and it was really ever since all that’s happened is we have moved from rent by the hour to rent by the month to a longer lease on the kitchen premises and we’ve taken on more people to help us do shows like that as well. The initial listing, our first customer was Selfridges actually and it came off the back of that show and the big queue that was emanating from our stand and it was right place, right time and we are still in Selfridges today and it is one of our biggest customers so… which has been fantastic.

Elliot Moss
And along the way, how long has the business been going now? Five years?

Adam Sopher
Five years yeah.

Elliot Moss
Along that way what have been the biggest hiccups that you have had to manage? Has there been a kind of ‘I think this is wrong for us dad even though we love your popcorn moment’ I bet there been a few?

Adam Sopher
We’ve had a few… I mean do you know what, touch wood we have been really lucky and I think we have made some great decisions and anything that wasn’t quite ideal we have managed to sort of skip over. In terms of some of the challenges we’ve made some flavours that really haven’t worked, Banoffee Pie popcorn.

Elliot Moss
Didn’t work?

Adam Sopher
I loved it.

Elliot Moss
I like Banoffee Pie.

Adam Sopher
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Maybe that doesn’t count, I think maybe you don’t want it in a popcorn.

Adam Sopher
No, do you know, maybe. For whatever reason people didn’t get it.

Elliot Moss
Which one is the bestselling one?

Adam Sopher
Salted caramel is by far and away the best seller. Although we are starting to see that trend wain a little bit, we are seeing some other flavours, peanut butter in particular is coming through as our strong number two flavour at the moment.

Elliot Moss
But those… and those hiccups, just going back to that, were what specifically.

Adam Sopher
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
What were the things that almost went wrong or were mortal?

Adam Sopher
There was nothing too disastrous but you know, coming up with flavours that people don’t like is you know, on one sense is a bit of a kick in the teeth, you believe that it is going to be a great flavour and it works but people if they don’t buy into it, they don’t get it. We’ve had… we export quite a bit and we’ve had export shipments go a little bit wrong, stuck in customs and things like that as we’ve learnt and kind of struggled into getting into a new export markets but nothing really horrific to be honest. We’ve been lucky

Elliot Moss
And people. You haven’t had an issue with hiring people because that must be the hardest thing in a small business like yours? Well I say small, small then but now obviously getting bigger.

Adam Sopher
We I think again we’ve, maybe we, you know, we have a great team and I think maybe that has really helped us so our chef from day one, from operating in that rent by the hour kitchen, the chef who was working for another company in that kitchen at that time but preferred popcorn to what she was making at the time was our chef back then and now is our chef still today and she has a team under her of thirteen people so she’s built as she’s grown. Our packing and warehouse manager started packing bags of popcorn and is now managing a team of fifteen and in the office, you know, interns who join for two weeks at a time are now marketing manager, operations manager so we’ve, we’ve kind of built, I think we’ve built people and they’ve grown with us as well as we’ve grown.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my Business Shaper today, Adam Sopher; the co-founder of Joe & Seph’s Gourmet Popcorn. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that, some words of wisdom for your business from our programme partners at Mishcon De Reya.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss every Saturday morning I talk to someone who is shaping the world of business. Someone who is doing rather well and we listen to them and we go ‘I wish it was me’. I am talking to Adam Sopher today and he is my Business Shaper; co-founder of Joe & Seph’s as I mentioned earlier. You are a young man Adam, thirty?

Adam Sopher
Yes.

Elliot Moss
Yes. You started this business therefore when you were twenty five? – my maths is exceptional today.

Adam Sopher
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
That’s, you talked earlier in a very confident way, a calm way, you know these people we have taken them through, we haven’t had many issues, we’ve had some that we have had to deal with. Where have you gone when you didn’t know what to do? Because you make it sound straight forward and I am sure it isn’t but you are obviously a bit of a natural. Have you had outside counsel and if so, what kind of outside counsel?

Adam Sopher
So all of it has been informal. We have… the great thing about food and drink as a sector is everyone whose been there, done it, got the post card is really giving their time and it takes no more than a tweet or an email and someone will meet you for a coffee and you can have some fantastic conversations about ‘Look trying to export to this country, how do I go about it? Who are you working with in the USA? How did you recruit your whatever, what have you paid your recruiters?’ All those sorts of questions are the things that you know inevitably you get stuck on as a small business and frankly most of them have been answered by reaching out to people who have been there and done it and already got a lot of success along their journey.

Elliot Moss
And all the other stuff, I mean that’s fantastic that it is so open and that people are collaborative and that’s my sense as well of kind of the new era of business. But for the really pointy stuff, tax returns and structuring the way that you look at your business and all the contracts you have to deliver on. How have you kind of learnt what you need and what you don’t need because that’s a bit of a minefield isn’t it?

Adam Sopher
Yeah I think so initially we started off having no idea how an earth you should invoice a customer so I created an Excel template to do it in and hoped for the best and sort of as you got beyond a thousand invoices that Excel kind of broke and we realised we needed a system. So you end up, for example, what account system should you go out and get and we have, we do have great advisors, we have accountants, we have kind of lawyers who we reach out to every now and again and I think those people have coached us as to ‘look this is the system that is the best recognised in this area’ and we have generally taken their advice and implemented them. So I think there are definitely some specialists in those different areas that have helped us.

Elliot Moss
But nothing phases you? You don’t look phased?

Adam Sopher
No I quite like a challenge.

Elliot Moss
Do you like new stuff is that the thing?

Adam Sopher
I love new… yeah I think I am not one of those entrepreneurs that insists on having something new every day. I like to think that, along with my dad and my mum, we can run the business still as entrepreneurs but also as day-to-day business people but I do love new things and we have some really exciting stuff coming out later this year that will I hope revolutionise the popcorn category yet again and that really excites me. I love disrupting things.

Elliot Moss
The revolution is coming up very shortly.

Adam Sopher
Yes.

Elliot Moss
But first we have got some music and this is Aretha Franklin with Think.

That was Aretha Franklin with the rather well known Think. You can’t not like that really even if you have heard it a million times. Adam, we were talking before about things that don’t phase you which is good because that’s most things. You quite like new stuff. You are obviously in a family business and the dynamic between mum, dad and son and now your brother who I believe has come in to business, a few years younger than you. I know in my own family and if I sat round the kitchen table and we were in the same business I imagine that would get quite fruity sometimes. I mean, you know, I talk with my parents about business, their business and the business I work in and so on but that is not the same as running the same business. Do you… does it get a bit fruity?

Adam Sopher
Do you know, look it sounds really cliché what I am going to say it and I don’t mean it to be. When we started, I’ll be honest, when we started the business it was learning of about six months of how do you speak, how do I speak to my parents about business and how do they speak to me as their son but also trying to run a business alongside them and that was, the first six months was difficult. But ever since then, do you know what, we are all so aligned – I think that is the beauty of a family business – we are so aligned in terms of what we are trying to achieve, there is, and how hard we all work, there is never really a reason to disagree because fundamentally someone is going to have the right answer, it’s just a matter of bringing the other two to realise that the answer is correct whoever that person might be.

Elliot Moss
What made it difficult, I mean trying, you know, was it something along the lines of your know your dad said something and he says ‘but you’ve got to listen to me I am your father’?

Adam Sopher
Yes.

Elliot Moss
Was it… was that the dynamic?

Adam Sopher
Absolutely you know, from his side I think it was ‘look I’ve been telling you what to do ever since you were zero’ and I think that took a lot of, and it is amazing that he’s you know, we respect each other and I think that’s what it comes down to is, it was learning to respect each other’s abilities and what we bring to the table and you know, he’s got years and years of amazing experience and knowledge about business and how it works which is invaluable and has meant that we have got where we are today. My mum has this way with people that mean we can have a team of thirty five and she sort of manages all of that you know, it’s amazing and I’ve got different experience as well and I think it’s about bringing all of that together and yeah, respecting each other in what we all do.

Elliot Moss
And I imagine you have a daily kind of check-in because sometimes you would, as I have with my own family, you sometimes just you kind of revert to type.

Adam Sopher
Yes.

Elliot Moss
I am sure you don’t always hold the line. I am sure sometimes it becomes, you know, you are their son again.

Adam Sopher
Yes I think that’s… and sometimes on both sides, my mum is very good at actually ‘right we are talking like we are family now’ and kind of forget the work stuff and you know, whatever is going on this weekend is going on this weekend and I think there is an element of we need to, you know, you need to keep both, you’ve got to remember that you are still a family but have this fantastic hobby, passion and business that is a world of popcorn.

Elliot Moss
Family first and a world of popcorn second.

Adam Sopher
Yes.

Elliot Moss
That’s the order. Good.

Adam Sopher
That’s it.

Elliot Moss
Final chat with Adam and plus we will be playing a track from Tubby Hayes, that’s after the latest traffic and travel.

Lady E from Tubby Hayes and the All Stars and Tubby used to play with Ronnie Scott, just in case you didn’t know. Adam Sopher is my Business Shaper just for a few more precious minutes and we talked about business first, family second. The business has grown and it has grown really pretty quickly actually because you know, food business difficult to get the product right, difficult to get the distribution right, difficult for lots of reasons. Selfridges was that first pop, I believe you were one of the popcorn or the popcorn provider at the Olympics.

Adam Sopher
Yes.

Elliot Moss
Fantastic. Harvey Nic’s, you are in Harrods, you are in Wholefoods. I mean literally it’s the who’s who of the places you’d like to be in as a luxury business. When did you know it was going to be a success. At which point did you go ‘do you know what, this is more than just a thing we’ve tried, this is actually going to make a living for us all’?

Adam Sopher
Do you know we always had this objective of making the best tasting popcorn, that was what we set out to do. We weren’t trying to be the cheapest or the healthiest or the whatever. It was all about taste and we’ve… it was when we first got the Great Taste Awards, like the Oscars of the food world and they have never given a popcorn brand a Great Taste Award at the time, it was unheard of and we got something like our first year five awards and we were like ‘blimey’ and we are now fortunate to have twenty four Great Taste Awards and I think it was when we started getting that recognition from true foodies and the sales in places like Selfridges and Wholefoods, consumers were going back and buying more, we thought ‘hold on a second this is going somewhere, this is really quite exciting’ and it starts to build, it built momentum very quickly in food, you know, people talk about it on social media and they order from your website and yeah, the other thing that is very funny as well was you get – we have our own website so you can go on to Joeandsephs.co.uk and order…

Elliot Moss
That was a plug wasn’t it?

Adam Sopher
It slipped.

Elliot Moss
I love the way you say it so naturally.

Adam Sopher
It just slipped out but we when we started getting orders and you see them come in on my emails from the head of product development at another big retailer and the buyer at some other big retailer and starting to take us seriously as a popcorn company and trying to copy it and replicate it, we thought ‘hold on we’ve got something quite unique now’.

Elliot Moss
The foodie bit of it because I mean, your background isn’t food. How have you got to that culinary level where you are winning x number of awards for great taste. How have you managed to do that? Who’s the driver of that bit?

Adam Sopher
So my dad is our chef. He still today will create the flavour, the very first batch of whatever new flavour we bring out is his and it then gets handed over to our kitchens who make sure that we keep that consistency of flavour across every single batch that we make but the secret frankly is we don’t have a massive amount of automation. It is genuinely hand-made. Everyone says hand-made on their packaging but we, there are real hands that have gone in to making Joe & Seph’s, we use fantastic natural ingredients, we air pop the corn, we don’t fry it which basically means we blast hot air on it and then you don’t have that taint of oil covering the popcorn so you get a much richer flavour. We use premium quality corns so you get bigger pieces and so we kind of reinvented every single bit of the process to mean that the end product was different to anything else that is out there.

Elliot Moss
The international element of it also has expanded rapidly and you mentioned earlier about, you know, getting advice from people when you want to know who the distributor should be in another country.

Adam Sopher
Yes.

Elliot Moss
Have you an ambition to go globally? Is that the thing? You are going to be everywhere and anywhere? Is that what it is?

Adam Sopher
I think yes. You’ve got to be a little bit careful you don’t spread yourselves too thin. I think that’s the advice I’ve been given but certainly you know, my ambition for however many years it is going to take us, is to be in every single premium food store and cinema across the world. We are now in seventeen countries we distribute to and we are actually really fortunate that the Grocer which is like the magazine in the food industry gave us their Gold Award for exports. So there was little old me and my brother actually at the ceremony getting up on the stage in front of the Sainsbury CEO and you know, the who’s who of the industry in recognition of that which is fantastic but yes, it is. We have a great product, it’s unique, we should be in lots of countries because they don’t have it themselves as well so.

Elliot Moss
Well listen I hope you come back in a few years when your business is three hundred million pounds…

Adam Sopher
Thank you so much.

Elliot Moss
…and you have successfully sold and done all sorts of things but you are still in control as I know you love it. Adam thank you, you’ve been a great guest. Let me know, just before you go though, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Adam Sopher
Song choice, wow, this one was a fairly easy one. James Brown, Mother Popcorn.

Elliot Moss
You don’t need to say much more than that. Here it is.

The inspired choice of my Business Shaper today, Adam Sopher with Mother Popcorn from James Brown. A family business and it is nice to hear someone talking as both a son and a shareholder and a partner in a business there and kind of challenging that dynamic with mum and dad. It seems to be working. A focus on taste, these guys knew exactly what they wanted to do with their dad’s passion and that was create something of real value to our taste buds and finally, a common sense approach. The last five years these guys have really just talked to people naturally as well as got the more formal advice and it is really paying dividends. It is fantastic to hear. All good stuff. Do join me again, same time, same place, that’s next Saturday, 9.00am sharp for another edition of Jazz Shapers. Meantime, stay with us because coming up next it’s Mr Nigel Williams.

Adam Sopher is co-founder and director of Joe & Seph’s Gourmet Popcorn along with his parents Joseph and Jackie. Joe & Seph’s aim is to produce the very best-tasting popcorn in world, using all-natural ingredients. They create a large range of innovative flavours including Salted Caramel, Goats Cheese & Black Pepper and Gin & Tonic popcorn. Joe & Seph’s is now available in over 1,000 UK locations as well as 15 countries worldwide and have won 24 Great Taste Awards as well as the Grocer Gold Award for Export.

Follow Adam on Twitter @adamsopher.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

“…turned up with a car load of popcorn, hoped for the life of us that it would sell because we couldn’t eat that much popcorn ourselves…”

“I reckon I was probably one of the biggest nightmares to manage.”

“…my dad was an entrepreneur and his dad was an entrepreneur, so I think it probably runs in the genes a bit.”

“We’ve made some flavours that really haven’t worked…Banoffee Pie popcorn.”

“Initially we started off having no idea how an earth you should invoice a customer.”

“I think that is the beauty of a family business – we are so aligned in terms of what we are trying to achieve there is never really a reason to disagree.”

“Coming up with flavours that people don’t like is a bit of a kick in the teeth.”

“You’ve got to remember that you are still a family, but have this fantastic hobby, passion and business that is a world of popcorn.”