Founded in 2007 by Keith Belling and Patrick Turpin, Popchips brought innovation to the salty snacks aisle with potato and rice chips ‘popped’ using heat and pressure, with oil and seasoning added afterwards.
The brand, which is now owned by Velocity Snack Brands, went on to launch a variety of extensions, from puffed peanut extruded snacks (Nutter Puffs), and popped pea chips (Yes Peas) to popped products utilizing corn and cassava root .
While these had gained some traction, they were not setting the world on fire, and have been phased out of the portfolio, VSB CEO Amit Pandhi told FoodNavigator-USA.
“Part of the learning [from recent consumer research conducted by Popchips] was figuring out what is important to the consumer, and for Popchips, potato was really the hero, so we got out of a number of those more niche SKUs to really focus on the core, which is frankly, what's been driving our growth.”
'Doing the snack math'
The new packaging, which brings the ‘Never Fried. Always Real’ tagline front and center, is rolling out to stores now, said Pandhi: “The energy that has always been part of the brand… we think this packaging really brings that to life.”
Popchips brand manager Megan Osowski added: “We felt there was an opportunity to amplify that energy through our new brand identity.
“Our audience tends to be in the 32-45-years age range and a bit lower, higher income, living active suburban, urban lifestyles, and they also tend to have kids in the family as well. But aside from demographics, they might work out so they can indulge, they don't want to have that snacker’s remorse, they're doing the snack math, where they indulge in better for you salty snacks [Popchips have half the fat of traditional potato chips], as well as conventional salty snacks.”
'Velocities for our core potato chips line have been strong'
So how is the Popchips brand performing?
Pandhi wouldn’t share numbers, but said Popchips performed well during the pandemic, when many consumers were snacking more than ever but looking for better for you options that still provided comfort and satisfaction.
“Velocities for our core potato chips line have been strong, especially our hero SKU barbecue, the #1 BBQ snack in the better for you category. We've also seen really strong performance at club stores.”
As covid restrictions have lifted, Popchips has continued to perform well in grocery and club channels, while foodservice sales have also picked up again as consumers have emerged from their homes, added Pandhi. E-commerce sales, meanwhile, have become increasingly important to the brand, which is available on Amazon, Instacart and retailer dot coms, but also direct to consumer at popchips.com.
“Historically, e-commerce was a pretty small piece of the business, but we have spent the last year transitioning our SKUs and pack sizes to meet consumer needs. It’s still a relatively small part of the overall business, but we’ve seen a pretty tremendous amount of growth and if we're talking a year or two from now, I wouldn't be surprised if it's north of 15 or 20% of our business.”
Velocity Snack Brands: Still on the lookout for acquisitions?
Velocity Snack Brands – a portfolio company of VMG Partners set up in October 2019 to buy, incubate and grow snack brands - has not yet made any acquisitions, he acknowledged, noting that covid-19 hit pretty shortly after VSB was formed.
“It became a pretty uncertain time during which to make decisions on acquisitions, but we're still looking for brands that really emotionally connect with consumers. As the world is getting back to normal, we will be more clearly able to understand what's going on with companies’ trajectories.”
Supply chain management: 'We now dual or triple source nearly every item'
Asked about supply chain challenges, he said: “They have definitely affected almost all of our raw materials, and we've had to take costs in some areas. We've also worked with retailers to be more nimble and creative to offset the effects and best serve them, so we're consolidating loads, we've re-bid a lot of our materials, we've changed our minimums, and we've made our pallets more dense so we can fit more product on the trucks and in the warehouses in the same amount of space.
“We now dual or triple source nearly every item, we domestic source a number of items such as packaging that were previously coming from abroad.”
He added: “The labor shortages really had a big effect on us during the pandemic because we'd have lines go down due to staffing issues, so for two weeks, we lost our entire day shift, but I think one of the things we did exceptionally well is continue to service our customers at an exceptionally high rate.”
'Sunflower oil prices went up threefold in a matter of two weeks'
The situation in Ukraine – a key producer of sunflower oil (a key ingredient for Popchips) – is also creating new challenges in the salty snacks market, impacting the price of sunflower oil directly, but also having knock-on effects on other seed oils, he said.
“Sunflower [oil prices] went up threefold in a matter of two weeks. And as manufacturers have tried to move into alternative oils, you're seeing the pressure on the rest of the oil category.”
He added: “What these consecutive crises have taught us is that you have to be flexible and nimble and dynamic, and be ready to change your strategy and pivot.”