Popcorn has exploded over the last few years with start-ups popping up left, right and center, but is there room for more competition? And can growth be sustained? Industry is torn.
The global popcorn sector was worth $7.78bn last year and has been forecast to soar to $10.3bn by 2018, according to Euromonitor International. The US represented more than half of the global market in 2013, valued at $4.26bn. Within the US, ready-to-eat (RTE) popcorn held the lion’s share at 66.2%.
Daniel Bastian, founder of Angie’s Popcorn, said there was a lot of room for growth in the ready-to-eat segment. “Penetration is pretty low still and people are opening themselves up to ready-to-eat popcorn, which they never did before. I think there’s a lot of opportunity – that’s why companies are jumping in,” he told BakeryandSnacks.com at last month’s Sweets & Snacks Expo in Chicago.
Jim Richter, vice president of sales at Angie’s, said the RTE category had come a long way in the last five years – fueling increased appeal. “The packaging has improved; shelf life has been elongated, and because of that people have a really good experience,” he said.
“I’m bullish on it. There’s obviously a lot more competitors – a lot more have joined the game and I think there’s room for all these people that are competing in the different areas.”
There’s too many companies jumping on the fad
However, Eric Thier, president of Oogie’s Snacks, disagreed. “Now, all of a sudden popcorn is a big fad – considered the snack of the year – and you have a gazillion companies doing it. Why? People think it’s an easy business to get into. But 80-90% of the companies here at Sweets & Snacks that have been in business less than two years won’t be here a year or 18 months from now. They don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.
Thier said the majority of new popcorn firms didn’t understand pricing, margins or what production was truly about. “The best thing that can happen at this point is for them to clear out and we’ll get down to a manageable number of companies.”
The explosion of start-up popcorn companies, he said, had started to take its toll on his 10-year establishment as retailers turned to cheaper, new alternatives. “The market needs to retract, and it will.”
Straddling health and indulgence
Most popcorn firms had developed a flurry of new products that captured both healthy and indulgent snacking amid the boom – something Marc Fraum, partner of MJC Confections, said was the key to success.
“We want to be able to be the ones that cover both markets. So, when it is holiday time and you want to indulge and you’re not thinking about the calories or too much about eating healthier, that’s our Hampton Popcorn range. Then the baked popcorn [Snacks 101] is more your all-year-round eating,” he said.
The opportunities for popcorn won’t ever change, he said – “it will always be both health and indulgence”.
Ryan Amos, general manager at Gary Poppins, agreed that there was space for both indulgent and healthy popcorn variants, but said the future would fall more on the healthy side.
“There’s recently been a heavy skew towards the natural market, or functional if you will, through non-GMO, all-natural, with chia seeds, or just low calorie, low fat options, or even just a whole grain snack that is good for you. I think that’s where it’s trending now, towards the healthy market,” he said.
But how can industry secure a tasty future?
Asked how industry could sustain the heated interest in popcorn, all agreed it would center around flavor and texture innovation.
Amos said it was about chasing wider food trends. “There are surging trends, whether that’s cheese or bacon, which tend to trend in food and to be able to apply those growth categories to popcorn makes a lot of sense and we’ll continue doing just that.”
Gary Poppins had developed coffee-flavored popcorn and white cheddar jalapeño, for example.
In addition, there was a lot that could be done with the texture in popcorn, he said. There were two varieties of popcorn – butterfly and mushroom – that had different shapes and textures, he explained, but there was also the option of inclusions, like bacon bits or cherry pieces to add chew as well as flavor.
Thier from Oogie’s said it was about balancing traditional and unique flavors. “The consumer wants familiarity and the flavors that have always been popular like cheddar and butter, and they want the more interesting, unique flavors. We’ve got smoked Gouda, for example,” he said.
Fraum from MJC Confections said flavor would drive growth in the gourmet, indulgent popcorn sector in particular.