The latest James Bond film, No Time To Die, had its world premiere at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall last month. Everyone in attendance, including Daniel Craig himself and the the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (or ‘Wills and Kate’ as British tabloids like to caption them), was gifted a bag of 007-themed promotional popcorn to munch during the movie. These treats were handmade by local gourmet snack merchants Joe & Seph’s, specially designed to a Bond-inspired recipe and served with the quippy tagline: ‘popped not stirred’.

“James Bond has always been my idea of the ultimate brand partnership,” says co-founder Adam Sopher. “I love the films and they’ve got fantastic partners such as Aston Martin, much bigger brands than us. But we knocked on their door for years and in the runup to the new one they said yes. Now we’re selling in cinemas up and down the country.”

Adam with his parents Joe and Jackie.
Adam with his parents Joe and Jackie.

It makes sense for this family-owned and run popcorn-maker to have such a blockbuster breakthrough.

“For me, and for most people, there’s an emotional connection to popcorn because it’s traditionally eaten watching a film. It brings back nice memories of occasions when you got to enjoy it,” adds Adam.

In his own case, he used to devour it at the cinema with his brother and sister as a child and at home when their father Joe would bring back fancy-flavoured American popcorn from his work trips to the US. There was nothing like that variety in the UK at the time, so Joe started trying to make his own, “but better”.

He wasn’t any kind of chef, says Adam. “No, he ran an electrical business. But playing around in the kitchen was always his hobby. Not so much cleaning it up though.” Which is to say there was a powerful smell of burned kernels in the house over a roughly five-year period of trial-and-error.

“Lots of overheating, pans that had to be binned, ingredients that were never going to work.”

Joe Sopher experimented with techniques and flavour combinations in his home kitchen for five years.

Joe Sopher experimented with techniques and flavour combinations in his home kitchen for five years.

The popular Salted Caramel flavour is the brand’s bestseller.

The popular Salted Caramel flavour is the brand’s bestseller.

That amateur-artisan research and development process also yielded critical eureka moments, as when Joe started using hot air to pop the corn, instead of the standard British method of frying in oil and sugar. He insisted on using all-natural flavours, too – “sequenced” in such a way that each element would reveal itself in turn on the palate, as with a good cheese.

Indeed, he came to use natural cheeses such as Irish Cheddar for his savoury experiments, while also perfecting a technique for sweetening kernels by coating each one in salted caramel. Even then, nobody outside the family ever tasted the results until Adam and his mother Jackie took samples to a London food fair in 2010.

“That was the first time we asked other people what they thought… and they went mad for it. We sold out on the second day of a three-day event, which was a bit awkward, but told us we were onto something.”

Adam marks that as the day Joe & Seph’s was born as an entity, and the next decade saw the Sophers “doing more of what we did… supplying more stores around the world with more flavours of our premium popcorn”.

Poppin’ good!

Make movie nights at home more fun with Joe & Seph’s gourmet popcorn.

Those flavours grew to a range of 50-plus varieties, including seasonal specials like Eggnog at Christmas (included in a branded line of popcorn-filled advent calendars) and high-end gastronomic profiles such as olive oil with truffle oil and truffle salt. Adam’s own favourites “depend on the time of day,” he says. He likes a bag of Goat Cheese & Black Pepper as an evening appetiser and the Chocolate flavour as a snack while driving. But Joe’s original Salted Caramel flavour remains the biggest seller.

“We thought that trend would last a few months or years when we started, but it’s still the hero of the range.”

The last year, of course, has seen more people stuck at home watching movies than any other time in modern history, so you’d think the pandemic might be a boom time for providers of couch-ready comfort food.

“It’s been ups and downs,” says Adam. “We supplied a lot of airlines and theatres, so when Covid hit we lost a lot of business. Then we spent time building up our direct-to-consumer sales and our retail around the world to buyers like Spinneys. So, we went from massive losses to online customers ordering our products to enjoy at home while watching Netflix. Far more people have tried our popcorn in the last 18 months than any time in our history. Now we’ve got them eating it in cinemas again and they’re loving it.”