Call it the circle of life. Roger Holmes’ great-grandfather Albert Pope planted the first corn crop on the family farm in the 1950s. Oakdene Farm was passed down to his grandfather Ben Holmes, and later to his father Mark Holmes. And now, after co-founding Stolen Rum, a company that recently sold a majority stake to Chicago-based Liquid Asset Brands for $21 million, he’s gone back to his roots and launched a premium popcorn brand.
But popcorn? Really?
“We got the same response when we started Stolen. ‘Rum? Really?’”
That certainly worked out alright for him. And Holmes sees similar potential in his new venture, with the popcorn category growing at about 20 percent a year globally and around 14 percent in New Zealand.
Kiwi businesses are pretty good at taking popular ideas overseas and implementing them here. That’s what happened with Stolen (and, specifically, Stolen’s spiced rum), and Holmes says it was a similar scenario with Serious Popcorn.
“It’s always overseas when the bell goes off,” he says.
He says there wasn’t one eureka moment, but he started thinking about bringing a premium popcorn brand to New Zealand when he was staying in Miami and was travelling a lot.
“I saw it blowing up in the US, and thought New Zealand has to follow suit,” he says. “ … When I started, I thought about the GMO corn and Monsanto and I always wondered where [popcorn] came from. And, growing up on a corn farm, I thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to premiumise that offering’.”
He says Serious Popcorn’s main points of difference are that he has a contract grower in the Hawke’s Bay, it’s certified organic and it’s cooked in coconut oil. And there are a couple of trends he’s trying to tap into here: the growth of the healthy snack food market and organic products (which are growing at around 10 percent a year, with global sales of around $100 billion).
“There’s good growth [in organics] here, but we’re still the dark ages in comparison to some other markets,” he says.
Having added many millions of dollars to the value of Stolen through good design, clever branding and often quite subversive marketing, he knows full well how value can be created in the mind, as well as in the factory. And he believes this is “absolutely” an area that is overlooked by Kiwi businesses that should be aiming high and playing on premium, rather than trying to compete on scale.
“It delivers for me. It’s everything we want in a business. The branding side for me is something I like doing and I enjoy the ongoing product development.”
He even purchased a commercial popper and experiments with new flavours in his own kitchen, before doing larger runs in a commercial kitchen (at present, there are just two flavours, sea salt and sweet and salty, but there will be more).
Rum is, for many, a fun product, with its associations to pirates, beach parties and good times. Popcorn is a fun product too, although he says it has a much broader appeal, is family-friendly and is much less masculine. And that gave him, James Hurman and Kelvin Soh, who were also involved in the creation of Stolen,
a fair bit to play with when it came to the branding, packaging and positioning.
Eventually they went with the purposefully oxymoronic name Serious and a cartoon bear as “our spiritual guide and a metaphor for nature”. A bear is not something you would traditionally associate with snacking—except perhaps if it was Yogi or Boo-Boo—but he says it chose ‘Serious Bear’ because it didn’t want to be too worthy and wanted to create a “likeable, sustainable positioning”.
As it says on the website: “Why so Serious? Serious Bear is concerned about what you’re snacking on. He’s giving you that look. Enough of the chips, stop it with the chocolate bar, you. I’m giving you this look out of love. Because I care. Like a bear.”
“We played around with a few different characters. Being popcorn, we didn’t want it to be too child-like. But it’s very powerful and quite disruptive on the shelf. You don’t see anything else like that in the supermarkets.”
He says a big part of the success of Stolen came down to word of mouth, which tended to start with bar staff and eventually filter down to consumers. And this is also a big focus for Serious.
“We’ve got a big van with a big bear on it … It’s about getting out and about and doing lots of tastings to try and get the idea of popcorn as a snack in people’s minds … It’s nice and simple. But it works. People like the story.”
Currently Holmes is selling direct at various markets and online (at $20 for a pack of 12). And the product is also stocked in over 50 high-end retail stores, including a New World in Remuera. But he’s planning on stepping things up this year to get wider distribution.
While people often focus on the cash that comes out of a successful start-up, they often fail to look at the sacrifices the owners may have had to make to get it. Holmes pulled back from Stolen a few years ago and, as he’s aiming to keep the growth more manageable this time, he won’t be bringing in a lot of investment.
“As I’ve gotten older, I realised fast-paced, high-growth can take its toll.”
Even so, success is addictive and Holmes obviously has the entrepreneurial gene, so he has ambitions to continue further down the sustainable snacking path—possibly in the form of a bar—and he thinks New Zealand’s reputation for quality produce makes Serious a good proposition for international expansion.
And if history is any guide, it seems there’s a very good chance he’ll make this business pop too.
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