6 Success Secrets From POP! Gourmet’s Happy Founder

These food business startup lessons are universal

You might know Seattle-based POP! Gourmet from their bright red popcorn bag, with the Huy Fong Foods Sriracha branding. Or maybe you’ve inhaled a bag of Almond Roca popcorn, or seen small POP! Gourmet popcorn bags at Starbucks.

This specialty food business, which started in 2011, is now a multi-million dollar global snack food company with international distribution.

So I was delighted when POP! Gourmet founder David Israel offered to share his inspiring stories and tips that led to this growth. 

“If I were to have projected the numbers we're doing now versus a year ago, people would have thought we were crazy.” - David Israel, founder

Here are 6 keys to POP! Gourmet's success...so far!

Followed an Instinct and Signs That a Big Opportunity Awaits

pop! chips co-branded popcorn
What attracts investors?. Susie Wyshak

Lesson 1Pay attention to your radar.

Popcorn came to David's attention after he saw people blending things into popcorn, from M&Ms candy to Hot Tamales.

Tapping into his entrepreneurial spirit, David thought specialty popcorn was something that could sell — even before the big popcorn trend.

Embraced the Vision, Despite the Doubters

Jalapeno popcorn bag in French
Mais souffle is taking the world by storm (that's popcorn, in French). Susie Wyshak

Lesson 2: Ignorance is bliss sometimes.

Food wasn't as simple as David expected.

"I thought it would be ‘Pop some popcorn, stuff a bag, and you're off to the races," he says. "We didn't know what a co-packer was or how much cheaper and easier it is to use a co-packer. Manufacturing ourselves, we have x-ray machines, conveyors...lots of expensive equipment. We had to understand food safety and learn about scaling up. 

The company grew out of its facilities quickly, starting at 1300 sq ft, then 5000 then 20K then finally a 30K production space, after raising capital and bringing in investors.

"We now also produce in several other countries, and have distribution in 17+ countries and growing," says David.

Differentiated To Allow For Growth With a Broad Mission

Firecorn Jalapeno popcorn from POP! Gourmet
Firecorn Jalapeno popcorn from POP! Gourmet represents just one of the company's partnerships. Firefcorn

Lesson 3: Go against the grain. 

"We're not in the popcorn business, we are in the innovation business."

So many people told us "This isn't how it's done," says David. But that's when these people thought POP! Gourmet was a "popcorn company" rather than the “flavor innovation” company that became the company's guiding principle.

David explains that drawing a line to be all about flavor, rather than a specific product category like snack foods, opened up a whole new world of new product lines beyond popcorn, like potato chips, croutons, ketchup.

"Most popcorn product equipment is really made for mixes or lightweight material. We're different," he says. "Everything we make is from scratch. We make actual butter toffee and real caramel to top the popcorn." And that means the production process has two paths: confectionery and a popcorn production. 

(Note to readers: This is where owning the manufacturing process comes in handy. A manufacturer can have unparalleled flexibility to change the business model or product line as needed, versus working with a co-packer.)

Set Partnership Goals Then Pursued Them Like a Courtship

POP! Gourmet's line of Sriracha flavored spices, condiments and hummus
POP! Gourmet's line of Sriracha flavored spices, condiments and hummus. POP! Gourmet

Lesson 5: Quality speaks for itself. That, and persistence, led to unique partnerships. 

Key to POP! Gourmet's expansion has been on-the-ground tests, where retailers compared sales of the brand they had been selling versus POP! Gourmet sales. 

Where did all of the great flavors come about? David explains, "Early on, I wanted to partner with some popular food companies for co-branded flavors." He persisted in making this happen:

  1. Brown & Haley, makers of Almond Roca: Because Brown & Haley was nearby and people love their product, David thought a butter toffee Almond Roca flavor would be a great product. He reached out for 5-6 months and they said no about 5 times.

    "I kept making product and dropping it off, like planting a seed. We kept getting better. One day we dropped it off and they said 'Let's do it!' That was our first co-branded product and it became our best selling product."
  2. He then contacted Rogue Creamery, in Oregon, to ask David Gremmel about using a powdered form of his award-winning blue cheese on popcorn. POP! won a Sofi award for that flavor. Rogue also has gotten amazing accolades for their dried blue cheese product, which other food manufacturers now use in various products.
  3. For the Sriracha flavor, David contacted , whose Sriracha brand is well known and loved with a signature red brand with the rooster. It is also often-copied. David made his intention to co-brand with Hoy Fung clear. He says, "Once they understood that I only wanted to do it in collaboration with them, they realized I wasn't just trying to rip off their flavor." The company has continued collaborating to roll out our new Sriracha ketchup, mayonnaise, Potato Chips and other foods.
  4. Tom Douglas, a popular restaurateur in Seattle agreed to work with the company, too on a limited edition flavor.
  5. David wanted to have partners like Starbucks, so he reached out to Starbucks to propose a themed popcorn. Now you can find POP! Gourmet in many Starbucks cafes.

All the while, the company has continued to use the same quality ingredients and production process as when they started. 

Funded Company Growth With Local Connections and a Great Reputation

POP Gourmet! founder David Israel
POP Gourmet! founder David Israel. Susie Wyshak

Lesson 4Know your end goal.

Early on, the team just made it work, with David bootstrapping the company, maxing out three credit cards. He didn't take a salary for 2 1/2 years.

A goal to build the world's largest popcorn company led POP! Gourmet into some great partnerships. David says, "A few local business leaders paid attention to what we were doing and invested, eventually becoming members of our board. We have investment banking firm partners from Chicago and New York."

How did he decide on getting funding via investors rather than alternative funding such as crowdfunding? He explains, "I figured I could have a smaller percentage of $30-40 million in sales or have a larger percentage of a much smaller business."

Continuously Learning From Failures To Achieve Success

Almond Roca butter toffee popcorn by POP! Gourmet
POP! Gourmet Almond Roca butter toffee popcorn. Susie Wyshak

Lesson 6: Be grateful and happy...appreciate the failures too.

David has learned from some hard life lessons. "Doing the right thing has paid off. Business is not all about dollars, which it was early in my business career."

Gratitude + Good Attitude = Great Results

Doing what's right for consumers, buyers, employees and investors has come back around to POP! Gourmet well. "Being willing to take a ‘lump’ sometimes is something I’ve come to accept, that didn't know when I was younger. Like if pulling the wrong product out of a retailer costs us $10K that's OK, we want them to do well and it's part of business."

Failures have made POP! Gourmet more successful.

Note: David’s email footer lists the company’s awards, which is pretty unbeatable marketing!

  • Recipient of the 2015 SIAL China Food Show “Most Innovative Product Line Award”

  • Snack and Wholesale Bakery Magazines “Best Snack Producer 2015”

  • Winner 2015 Gold Medal ProDexpo Moscow  “Product Innovation and Taste”

  • Winner of the 2014 Sweets and Snack Show Middle East "Best Snack Products"

  • Winner of the 2014 Silver sofi™ "Most Outstanding Snack"(Huy Fong Sriracha)

  • Winner of the 2014 Sweets and Snack Show"Most Innovative New Product of the Year" (Huy Fong Sriracha)

  • Winner of the 2013 Gold sofi™ "Most Outstanding Snack" (Rogue Blue)

  • Winner of the 2013 Sweets and Snack Show "Most Innovative New Product of the Year" (Fire Corn) (a super spicy popcorn, for which crunchy jalapenos fry within the popcorn oil)