Emile Alexander on venturing into the popcorn business

Entrepreneur Emile Alexander conceptualised his gourmet popcorn business in early 2015, when he noticed a gap in the local snack market

When he realised that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he borrowed R1 500 and started making popcorn in his kitchen, innovating recipes and seeking the best way to craft his product with few resources at his disposal.

He officially registered Emilio’s Gourmet Popcorn in June the same year.

“For a long time, South Africans only had cheap savoury popcorn and mass-produced caramel popcorn offerings to choose from on the market. There wasn’t ‘premium gourmet popcorn’ of high quality in a range of flavours.

“This was an opportunity waiting to be exploited, because South Africans love snacking and globally, gourmet popcorn was growing very fast as a food concept. I knew that it wouldn’t be long before somebody launched it here,” he says.

The entrepreneur from Eldorado Park and Ennerdale in Johannesburg prides himself on being the first to introduce South Africa to premium gourmet popcorn.

“However, we also contributed to its evolution globally by creating amazing popcorn inspired confectionery, which we call ‘popcornology’. We have seen through social media that quite a number of established international brands are now emulating our culinary creations and that makes us very proud,” says Alexander.

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His new adventure was also inspired by an intensive drive to get back to business, after losing everything in a previous venture.  “So, it was both push and pull factors that got me into it,” he says.

Alexander has always had business instincts in his heart, but when SAA was looking for a cabin crew members, he couldn’t resist the offer to be paid to see the world.

Only a year into his new job, his entrepreneurial instincts kicked in. He started importing clothes from overseas and tried to export food to the rest of Africa, but that failed.

“I saved every penny diligently and in 2002, I started developing and buying properties that I then rented out,” he recalls.

Four years later, he sold some property to invest in a franchise restaurant, as he wanted to create a cash-generating machine to fund more property purchases.

He opened the first restaurant in 2007 and the second one in 2009 but soon ran into difficulties.

“The restaurants struggled. I tried everything to make it work. Bonded myself to the hilt to keep them going, I worked 16 hours a day. The food was great, service was good, I advertised aggressively, but eventually, we had to close down in 2011,” he says.

He fell into a depression and was in the business wilderness for a few years, trying everything from construction to tech and training. It was only in 2015 that things began to turn around.

“This business has got me back in the game after serious setbacks. I am now building a solid brand and growing a real business that has the potential to be very successful. It is a product that is sustainable and scalable,” he says. Alexander says it is extremely challenging, but he strives to grow his business and make people happy.

He says the first challenge when he ventured into the popcorn business was to secure funding to open new stores and scale production capacity.

“I burnt sugar, butter, popcorn and cheese for weeks. I had to negotiate skilfully in order to get assistance from service providers and suppliers to buy into my vision. They became very receptive after I gave them some free popcorn, because the stuff tastes amazing,” he says.

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With the help of his friend Kelvin from the Johannesburg Culinary and Pastry School, he moved from making popcorn in his kitchen to working at his friend’s school from 7pm till the early morning hours for a few months.

“He was and still is a great supporter. I kept reinvesting the profits and I even sold my house to fund our own factory space and for our Montecasino store. Right now, our challenge is finding the right funding partner to expand, and finding competent staff with good attitudes to help us grow,” he says.

The biggest challenge, however, lies in bridging the steep learning curve of figuring out and growing a new product and business concept in a tough economic environment.

Alexander’s advice for aspiring entrepreneurs:

  • Start with what you have, no matter the extent of the resources at your disposal. Help will come when the right people see that you are creating something amazing.
  • You are not entitled to anything – you have to work if you want to succeed. Life rewards people who work hard and have a positive attitude.
  • Add value to people’s lives and the money will come – then make sure you manage that money properly. Don’t become complacent and most importantly, never give up.