Gourmet kernels: Meet the popcorn man of India

Vikas Suri sheepishly admits there are hardly any movie nights at their house. Yet, the inviting aroma of freshly prepared buttery popcorn flows freely at his home, like in a cinema. But unlike in a theatre, Suri’s residence has over 50 popcorn flavours. It is a perk of being an entrepreneur who supplies all things related to popcorn across the country.After tasting sessions that last for eight to nine hours at his office in Delhi’s Naraina, Suri loves to take his work home. So the flavours and aroma come too. It is this passion that has helped him build a Rs 30 crore empire around popcorn.Suri’s company, Popcorn & Co, has a kiosk-popcorn franchise business at malls and stores across the country. He caters to over 200 cinemas and has contracts with the top 10 organised cinema exhibitionists in the country through another company called Kitchenrama. He imports and sells popcorn machines — Suri claims he is behind nearly every popcorn machine sold to cinema halls — as well as supplies corn, kernels and flavours across the country. Now, the pandemic has made him expand his business.Kitchenrama, a B2B entity, saw almost two-thirds of its business evaporate when the lockdown closed cinemas. So Suri expanded and went retail. That business is under the banner Popcorn & Company, set up in 2017.His company gets over 200 orders a day on its website alone. Additionally, ecommerce website orders account for over 500 a day. “Ours are artisanal popcorn purely because they’re popped fresh and are not stored for days and then shipped out,” explains Suri.80189818Popcorn & Company wants to tap the gourmet popcorn segment — a mega-billion dollar business in the West but yet to reach that size in India. Modern food retail and gifting are growth channels for gourmet popcorn, says Samir Kuckreja, CEO of Tasanaya Hospitality says modern food retail and gifting are growth channels for gourmet popcorn makers. “While traditionally we are a popcorn eating country, the new flavoured popcorn have been an evolution. This segment would have grown during the pandemic as did many other FMCG products,” he says.Like many businesses did in the pandemic, gourmet popcorn companies, too, pivoted by going straight to the customer as their main source of revenue, cinemas, was closed.Suri is a late entrant in the direct-to-consumer popcorn business. Many like 4700 BC, The Crunch Box and Batcaves Gourmet Popcorn have been in the game for some time now. But he doesn’t consider them competition. “They’re all our friends because we supply equipment, corn kernels and flavours to most popcorn businesses in the country.”He may well be the front runner to be the popcorn king of the country.Through Kitchenrama, Suri supplies popcorn equipment from American company Gold Medal Products. Kitchenrama also imports machinery for commercial kitchens and restaurants. Quick service restaurants like Nando’s and convenience stores like 24Seven are among his clients.In FY19, Kitchenrama had a turnover of Rs 23 crore, of which Rs 17 crore came from selling only popcorn-related equipment. Popcorn & Company, which sells gourmet popcorn, already has a turnover of around Rs 2 crore. The company received brand enquiries from hotels, bakers and even kirana stores during the pandemic, Suri says.Suri’s entrepreneurial journey took shape around 35 years ago when he started working with a German company in the commercial kitchen equipment space. He was involved in setting up meat processing units for Venkateshwara Hatcheries (Venky’s) and Komarla Hatcheries. “I would sell this line of products once and buyers won’t come back for 12-13 years because the life of the product would be that long. I had to look for something more recurring,” he says, explaining how he got into Kitchenrama and popcorn in the 1990s. Soon after Ajay Bijli started PVR Cinemas, which redefined the movie watching business in India. It became all about the experience with plush seats, superior audio and video and snacking.Suri spent many days preparing presentations trying to convince Bijli to shell out Rs 5 lakh for an imported popcorn machine. Those days, the locally made popcorn machine that was called a popper cost Rs 10,000-15,000. “At the time, it seemed like too high an amount for a product that was so simple to make,” Suri recalls. Bijli agreed after a lot of discussion, Suri says. “You really need a lot of passion to sell food.” But he also points out that the business is a money spinner.A concession stand selling candied popcorn can break even in a year. The margins in this business, if a franchisee runs it, is 30-35%. “Popcorn is an impulse buy. The aroma is often inviting and it draws people. So the monetary payback is pretty good,” he explains.That is interesting for a business which imports its flavourings, powders and kernels.It is evident to anyone who meets Suri that he is passionate about his corn. He has even donated bags full of imported corn to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute at Pusa in Delhi so that they can study it and try to grow it here. But it would be hard to do it, he admits, because of the climatic conditions.In the meantime, he is focussed on growing his retail chain from four to 20 in the next two years. He has tied up with retail chain 24Seven to sell popcorn through dispensers. He has meticulously worked out an expansion plan, banking on others’ impulses to make it pop.
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