New flavour for Propercorn dreamed up in Ireland
Published: 19 December 2017 By Olive Keogh
New flavour for Propercorn dreamed up in Ireland
Young Irish graduate wins competition to create a new flavour for popcorn firm
Propercorn founder Cassandra Stavrou with Ashling O’Carroll who dreamed up the popcornmaker’s newest flavour. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Ashling O’Carroll is in popcorn heaven. She has just landed herself free popcorn for life and seen her suggestion for a Twisted Honeycomb flavoured popcorn go from an idea, into production and onto the shelves this month.
Twisted Honeycomb is the latest flavour from Propercorn, a five-year-old UK producer of popcorn with rocketing sales. Its turnover last year was £9 million (€10 million). This year it will be almost double that.
Propercorn was launched here just over two years ago and roughly 5 per cent of the company’s sales are to Ireland. Its estimated share of the Irish popcorn market is about 10 per cent and the product is stocked by major retailers such as Dunnes and SuperValu.
Propercorn’s founders are Cassandra Stavrou and Ryan Kohn. The original idea was Stavrou’s and she spent two years devising recipes for a healthy version of popcorn that used a minimal amount of oil to keep the calorie and fat counts low. To give the product a flavour kick she tossed the corn in different sweet and savoury seasoning combinations. There are already six flavours in the line-up including Sweet & Salty” and Smooth Peanut & Almond. O’Carroll’s Twisted Honeycomb will make that seven.
Twisted Honeycomb is the first new flavour to emerge from Propercorn’s Institute of Flavour – an initiative designed to get customers engaged with the brand. The competition to find the new flavour was launched on Facebook and roughly 15,000 entries were submitted from the UK and Ireland. These were narrowed down to a final 10 and the winner was chosen by public vote.
“I saw the competition announced and submitted my suggestion and basically forgot about it,” says O’Carroll who recently graduated in science from University College Dublin. “It was just a bit of fun and nobody was more surprised than I was when I won. I’m into food, and baking in particular, and I’m a big fan of honeycomb so the idea of a honeycomb popcorn really appealed to me.”
Stavrou told The Irish Times that the competition attracted “an overwhelming number of delicious combinations but Ashling’s flavour stood out from the very beginning. The team has loved bringing her unique recipe to life and experimenting with the floral sweetness of honey on popcorn for the first time”.
O’Carroll was consulted by the team to determine how she wanted the popcorn to taste and what has emerged is a combination of honey, Madagascan vanilla and sea salt. The product is gluten and GM free, it’s OK for vegetarians and it weighs in at under 120 calories a bag.
Despite having studied science, O’Carroll has ended up working for electricity provider Go Power in account management and sales. “I didn’t like science and all through college I had part-time jobs in sales and marketing, which I really enjoyed,” she says. Asked if she might consider a career in food, O Carroll says, “Sure I’m only 21, who knows?”
The story behind Propercorn is in the “rags to riches” tradition. Stavrou graduated in law but didn’t like it and joined an advertising agency on the lowest rung of the ladder. However, she was already incubating ideas for her own business and had toyed with a business to business software product and a frozen yogurt before deciding to breathe new life into popcorn.
“My father was a hopeless cook, but made the best popcorn, and we’d spend hours experimenting with ingredients and seasonings,” she says. “When I decided to build my business around a healthy snack, popcorn immediately came into my head because it’s something people understand. There is no customer education required. This is not the case with some of the alternative snacks on the market that use unfamiliar ingredients.
“With popcorn there’s no issue. We’ve all grown up with it and I saw the opportunity to reposition it upmarket by adding interesting and fun flavour combinations, keeping the oil, salt and sugar to a minimum and using attractive modern packaging.
“We also felt it was important to use the best quality GM-free butterfly corn because of its light crunchy texture and of course it’s also a great source of fibre.
“All too often, snack food is simply considered to be junk,” she adds. “Our research shows that 48 per cent of people believe the seasonings on their snacks are completely artificial. But this isn’t always the case and certainly isn’t when it comes to our recipes.”
In 2009, Stavrou quit her job and began experimenting in her mother’s kitchen. She had no money to put into the start-up so she worked in a bar and painted (pictures not walls) to support herself. Her mother also got stuck into the venture and spent two months threading popcorn necklaces for a big promotion.
Stavrou’s biggest challenges were finding a way of tumbling the popcorn to add the seasoning and of fine spraying the oil to keep the fat content as low as possible. Her solution to the first problem was a cement mixer; for the second, she turned to a fine mist spray gun typically used to paint cars.
Innocent drinks co-founder, Richard Reid, who has acted as a mentor to Stavrou advised her to find someone to work with on the development of Propercorn as having someone to share the inevitable highs and lows is important for a start-up. Stavrou subsequently teamed up with her best friend, Ryan Kohn, and the pair launched the business in 2011 with outsourced manufacturing. Propercorn now employs 44 people.
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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