Boulder’s Quinn Popcorn Takes On ‘Big Popcorn’

By Jerd Smith
Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.

It’s noon on a recent weekday — rush hour at Boulder’s Pearl Street Whole Foods — with hungry techies, students, housewives and househusbands — all on a mission to grab a quick, nutritious lunch.

In the snack aisle, on a shelf just across from the black bean chips and brown rice cakes is the popcorn. A handful of brands sit here, most are organic, a few can be microwaved.

One of these is shaking up the snack world: Quinn Popcorn. In a low-key brown box is something few if any of these other brands possess: A paper bag that is free of chemicals and compostable. Take it out of the box and the clear bag looks almost as if it’s made of wax paper.

The other trademark of the packaging is its light humor, from descriptions of different “shake styles” to advice: “You are smarter than your microwave … don’t trust the popcorn button … take a deep breath. You’ve got this.”

Hitting the big screen
This fall the co-founder of Quinn’s, Kristy Lewis, was recognized by Fortune Magazine as the most promising female entrepreneur in natural foods.

“That was a surprise,” said Lewis, who with her husband and high-school sweetheart Coulter, launched Quinn Popcorn during a maternity leave five years ago. Since then the duo have given birth to two more children, watched sales explode, from roughly 50,000 units to more than 1 million, moved the company to Boulder from Boston and watched annual revenue soar.

Leery of disclosing actual revenue, Kristy Lewis says only that the company has yet to hit $5 million in annual sales.

Its distribution network has also mushroomed, going beyond such natural grocers as Sprouts and Whole Foods to such places as Target and Safeway.

Kristy Lewis, according to those who know her well, has always wanted to do something around food. After she turned 30, while working for a gaming company as a project manager, she started investigating how to make microwave popcorn cleaner.

Organic popcorn had been around for years by then, but the packaging soured the whole experience. Why eat organic popcorn if the chemicals in the paper coated the kernels?

She and Coulter, an engineer, would spend a year experimenting with bag designs and sourcing, sketching, researching paper, sewing, and then doing more research.

In August of 2011, they launched on Kickstarter, raising about $30,000 and making contact with 755 people who believed in what they were doing.

“It was important confirmation to us that we were on to something,” Lewis said.

Grocer as fan, banker
Something else important occurred during that same period. She was on the phone every day calling Boston-area Whole Foods stores, and hounding the grocer’s “local foragers,” people charged with finding the regional, artisanal products the store is known for carrying.

With Quinn the baby in a stroller and her pitch cards in hand, Lewis dialed nonstop. (Now she would rather make a bed than a phone call, she says.)

Finally, in 2011, Lewis won a $30,000 purchase order from the iconic natural foods grocer. But Quinn Popcorn had no product yet. Whole Foods stepped in with a $25,000 producer loan.

To formally launch, they were able to raise $150,000 from family and friends, and subsequently were able to raise nearly $1 million from outside investors.

Still there was so much to learn and not that many people in Boston to learn from. Lewis had often visited her twin sister in Boulder, and knew of the community’s obsession with food — natural, organic, clean, minimally processed. She also came to understand that the region had a whole cadre of young food entrepreneurs whose mission was similar to Quinn’s.

On a visit to the Boulder Farmers Market on a Saturday morning, Lewis discovered Justin Gold, selling his wildly successful Justin’s Nut Butter.

Gold says he doesn’t recall that initial meeting. “I’ve met tens of thousands of people at farmer’s markets,” he said. But he does remember the subsequent email from Lewis. And the follow-up email, and all the emails that followed. And he answered them.

So as Kristy and Coulter, both 35, watched their tiny popcorn brand explode, they decided to move the company closer to people who were on a similar path.

Today they operate with a lean staff of five full-time and four part-time staffers (including them), in a sparse warehouse about two miles from that Pearl Street Whole Foods.

On any given day, there is a baby and a dog and a white board and some kind of snack sampling going on. They now offer pre-popped popcorn in several different flavors, including Kale and Rosemary.

They’ve learned to outsource, relying on others for manufacturing and sales, among other functions. In-house they have a director of operations, a director of marketing and social media and a part-time chief finance officer. Kristy’s mother runs their public relations from Connecticut, gratis.

Moving on up
Five years in, they are at a critical juncture, one which all small firms face. How to scale up.

“When you first get your start,” said Gold, “It’s really hard to do everything yourself, so you try to out source as much as you can. It’s the easiest way to get started. For now that’s really smart, but they are getting to a point where it is going to benefit her to do it herself. Maybe do her own manufacturing. What they are aiming for is not to be this small local food brand. It’s bigger than that.”

In fact, Kristy and Coulter think the world is ready for a major snack brand that is completely transparent about where its ingredients come from and how they operate.

But this whimsical duo will have to go up against the biggest of the big to succeed. Major behemoths such as Frito Lay, the $14 billion subsidiary of PepsiCo, is already looking for ways to make its brands cleaner and more holistic.

Last month another food industry giant, New Jersey-based Pinnacle Foods, which owns Birds Eye and Vlasic, among other brands, announced it would buy Boulder Brands, the company that owns such hallmark regional natural food companies as Udi’s and Evol, all in the name of claiming a piece of the natural foods market.

The drive to go natural lies with the growth occurring in this segment. According to the Organic Trade Association, based in Washington, D.C., sales of organic products in the U.S. reached $35.9 billion in 2014, up 48.9 percent from 2010.

Rebuilding faith in food
But to the folks at Quinn Popcorn, it’s about more than growth.

“People don’t trust our food supply any more,” Lewis said. “Farmer’s markets are blowing up because people want to know where their food comes from. Our goal is to create simple, honest, transparent food.”

To that end, one of the hallmarks of Quinn Popcorn is that consumers can visit the company’s website, scan a batch code, and trace its origin from start to finish — where the product started, from the non-GMO certified organic corn, to the flavorings, to the organic paper, to the box.

“We were the first to do this,” Lewis said.

Beyond reinventing popcorn, the duo are researching other products they can “clean up” and send out to a hungry, food-aware population of millenials.

Gold says their timing is perfect.

“The next generation of consumers are rebelling against the brands their parents grew up with,” Gold said. “Quinn is doing the right thing by reinventing popcorn and taking the chemicals out..”

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