The annual list of 'Oprah's Favorite Things', a holiday gift list featured every year in the December issue of O, The Oprah Magazine is out. The Oprah's Favorite Things annual list is said to be a must-have holiday shopping guide where you can find the most decadent desserts, ingenious gadgets, and finest in home, fashion, beauty, and popcorn. Artisanal popcorn to be exact.

Having tried for years to get on these lists with my products I wanted to know how this company landed and one of the best if not the best. I wanted to know how it landed as the only one in its category of 'gourmet dessert', and what any other business can potentially learn from this company's journey.

Popinsanity, only four years old, is based in Rockland County's Airmont, New York. Like their popcorn, the business 'popped' out of nowhere: Jacob, the founder, and chef behind the secret recipe found himself 'stuck' with a commercial popcorn machine in his basement that he couldn't return to the supplier.'

With his daughter's birthday party coming up, he decided to toy around with new colors and flavors, as a treat to her friends. The following day, parents kept calling asking for the source of the popcorn, so they could purchase more. What started as a basement operation to produce some popcorn for 'friends and family' grew into demand for his popcorn from people across the community.

Jacob decided he needed a partner to grow and Aaron Zutler was his guy. The strategy was to partner with a manufacturer in order to increase production capacity. They were astonished to learn that while manufacturers had a great interest in it, they simply couldn't replicate the popcorn. "80% of whom we spoke with, said they don't do caramel. Those who did, couldn't do chocolate. Those with chocolate, couldn't make it Kosher, and those who did, - couldn't maintain the non-dairy aspect", says Jacob. The secret recipe was just something the labs at the large manufacturers couldn't accomplish, with the quality and flavor.

Today, aside of landing the milestone of Oprah's Favorite Things list, Popinsanity reached $1M in sales and has expanded to international markets in the UK, China, Canada, and the Middle East. In the US, other than at upscale retailers like Zabar's , Popinsanity is sold at specialty stores such as Nordstroms Pop Up Shoppe, Pusateri's at Saks 5th Avenue.

I spoke with the partners to learn a little about how they did it.

1.     Trust the customer's experience: at first, other than the founders' spouses, everyone told them the math didn't add up, that no matter how good it is, no one will ever pay $18-20 for a small bag of popcorn. But what Jacob and Aaron discovered was, that if you give someone your product or service in a way that's upscale and of high quality, as a trial, - then no matter the price point, they'll want it. (the challenge is getting it into their hands). Popinsanity encourages you to spend more in the beginning on 'tastings', or free trials, rather than on advertising and promotions.

2.     Finding your business partners: Aaron attests to the fact he's a phenomenal salesman. Give him 3 minutes in a room with anyone - and you got a sale. But even if his life depended on it, he couldn't fathom the ins and outs of the supply chain and manufacturing. "In our case, we had humidity issues, weather challenges, logistics, chocolate melting, so many parts have to come together" - he tells me. What he learned is the value of partnering and entrusting certain business tasks to the experts in those fields.

3.     Who are you: Competition is fierce in almost every space. But the way you position yourself and your brand can make all the difference. In the case of Popinsanity, they acknowledge there are plenty of snack and popcorn companies. Yet none of them treat popcorn as gourmet dessert. The moment they redefined their product as a gourmet dessert, it no longer stood in the space of snack, or even chocolate. It now played in a different category altogether.

4.     The labor and human capital: When you start off a business - understand the labor costs. Those aren't just the wages. It's the 'real cost'. Aaron can't stress enough how you should choose your manufacturing location based on the proximity to labor and human capital who will have to execute on a business like this one.

5.     Diligence: Do your homework. Research and testing, repeatedly, is something that eventually is reflected and almost 'felt', in an upscale product. Customers do appreciate the outcome of a product made with love and much effort. 

Published on: Nov 11, 2018
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