And so far, he’s done a pretty impressive job, earning a clutch of industry awards, attracting unsolicited endorsements from Oprah, prime time mentions on Good Morning America and most recently, securing a deal with Home Shopping Network fitness guru Tony Little to sell a new lighter popcorn made with high-oleic sunflower oil called Diet Pop!
And sales are exploding, says Israel, who originally set up POP! Gourmet three years ago as a retail concept, but soon realized the money was in packaging his popcorn and getting other people to sell it, and launched a wholesale business about 18 months ago.
“We’ve still got a couple of stores that have a loyal following, but if you want a consistent product, where you’ve got control over the product quality at all times, it’s not the right model”, says Israel, who caught up with FoodNavigator-USA after launching Diet Pop! at Natural Products Expo East last week.
At first, buyers didn’t get it
“It’s just been remarkable. We’re rolling out with Kroger nationally in March, we’re talking to Safeway, we’re going into Hudson News next year, we’re going on United Airlines in February and we’ve got a partnership with [Mumbai-based retail conglomerate] Landmark Group to launch in Dubai.
“But the biggest deal so far has been our partnership with Tony Little on Diet Pop! Tony is huge on the Home Shopping Network; he accounts for 50% of its food sales.
“Buyers we’ve been speaking to at Expo East are also clamoring for it, so this is going to take us to the next level.”
'They realized they needed to look at us again...'
But at first, he admits, “Buyers didn’t get it. They’d say, ‘We’ve already got a cheese popcorn, what’s special about yours?’
“And then they started seeing us at shows, they tried the products, they saw we were getting all this incredible PR, and they realized they needed to look at us again.”
The key to his success, he says, has been a superior product (who else sells white popcorn tossed with premium Spanish white truffle oil and white truffle sea salt?) and partnering with top-quality brands such as Almond Roca, Rogue Creamery and B.A.’s Fire Corn.
He's also opted for an all-natural, non-GMO positioning, which has been a challenge, he says. "Popping corn is non-GMO anyway, but the non-GMO corn syrup we use is brought in from Austria. Other people have tried brown rice syrup or agave to avoid GMOs, but it doesn't taste as good."
Meanwhile, the industry plaudits keep coming in.
Rogue Blue, which is made with Blue Heaven cheese from Rogue Creamery, won a Gold sofi award at the Fancy Food Show in New York; while Fire Corn Real Jalapeño Popcorn scooped the most innovative new product award at the Sweet & Snacks Expo in Chicago.
But can he sustain his momentum as bigger rivals look for a slice of the premium popcorn action?
Why not, says Israel, who says he is always slightly bemused by this question. “There are 400 different chocolate companies out there, so if there are 12 other popcorn companies at this show, that's great. And no one’s doing what we’re doing.”
Manufacturing: At first, we really had no idea what we were doing
The challenge now is meeting demand when sales are growing so fast, says Israel, who relatively early on, made the decision to make his products himself - initially from a 2,000sq ft site, then a 4,000sq ft site, and now a 22,000sq ft site, after a co-manufacturing arrangement didn’t work out.
“At first, we really had no idea what we were doing,” he says. “It was just trial and error. But it made me understand the product better. No one can tell me what can and can’t be done now as I have been there and done that.”
We had to turn away about $2.5m of holiday business
He also had to turn down a significant chunk of business this year as he was kitting out the new factory in Kent, WA, because he was not sure he would be able to deliver the product on time as the equipment to make it was still on order.
“We had to turn away about $2.5m of holiday business as we were going through the process of adding capacity. I’m glad I did, because when people tell you your kit will be with you in 4-6 weeks, you better assume they mean 8-12 weeks.”
Click here to see POP! Gourmet Popcorn's flavors, from Rogue Blue Cheese to Spiced Caramel with Cashews.
Click here to see FoodNavigator-USA's gallery of 10 entrepreneurs to watch in US food and beverage.