x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Khalifa Fund and Etihad Airways help popcorn business, well, pop

The Life: When Khalid Al Shekaili started selling his gourmet popcorn in 2009, he thought the best way to do it was at small stands at shopping malls.

Khalid Al Shekaili, the co-founder of Popular Popcorn, which cemented its brand by winning a contract with Etihad Airways. Satish Kumar / The National
Khalid Al Shekaili, the co-founder of Popular Popcorn, which cemented its brand by winning a contract with Etihad Airways. Satish Kumar / The National

When Khalid Al Shekaili started selling his gourmet popcorn in 2009, he thought the best way to do it was at small stands at shopping malls.

This turned out to be an expensive and complicated way to do things, what with having to cook the kernels on site and comply with the various regulations governing the production of fresh food.

Then Etihad Airways came along and told the company that if it could package the popcorn into portion-sized packets, it would try it out as an in-flight snack. And that, so to speak, is when the company really took off.

Etihad placed an order for 12,000 packets. Airline contract in hand, Mr Al Shekaili and his brother, with whom he co-founded the Popular Popcorn business, approached the Khalifa Fund for support.

"We told them we are seeing a lot of acceptance from a wide range of customers - and this is a big contract we have won," he says. "They saw it was locally manufactured and told us to draw up a business plan."

The brothers presented their case to the Khalifa Fund's panel and were awarded a Dh2.4 million (US$653,400) loan to do two things: construct a production plant and ramp up their marketing campaign.

This allowed them to start attending international food expos such as ISM in Germany, the world's biggest confectionery trade fair, and Sial in France, the world's largest food exhibition.

In Germany, the brothers met one company from Australia and another company from Japan that each ordered two containers of popcorn.

With its cute logo in lime green and baby pink, it's easy to see the product's appeal in Japan. Popular Popcorn started out with three flavours - caramel, chocolate and coconut - but has since branched out into other varieties including strawberry, cheese, ginger curry and salt.

Etihad also asked the company to come up with a traditional Middle East flavour and the Shekaili brothers obliged by coming up with a date-flavoured popcorn.

"Dates don't really taste of much so we added cardamom and saffron," Mr Shekaili explains. "We had some ladies do a taste test and they gave us good feedback. We found it much better than the caramel one. It tastes very nice."

For now, the brothers have postponed plans to build their own factory.

"I went to visit a site at Kizad to look for premises and I met a very nice guy," he recalls. "He advised me, 'Don't construct, just rent. Now is not the time to build [facilities]. Build up the company in terms of sales'."

So the brothers have found a bigger site for rent in Mussafah and are transferring production there from Al Ain.

The Etihad contract and the interest of companies abroad also convinced the brothers to go after international rather than local sales. They have orders from Kuwait and Oman and interest from Bahrain and Algeria.

The UAE market is trickier. A local distributor is expensive, as are the fees Carrefour and Lulu want for stocking the product. However, Abu Dhabi schools are taking the salty variety, which has fewer calories. The brothers are excited that children will be introduced to the brand. Adnoc gas stations have also just agreed to stock the product.

"We import the kernels from the US, now France as well," says Mr Shekaili. "There are different types and we selected the best. It's called the mushroom variety. It pops uniformly, and its nice and easy for coating later on."

A packet retails for Dh1 - or Dh2 if bought at Adnoc.

Mr Shekaili retains his day job as an engineer at the Abu Dhabi Airports Company.

"We are struggling right now," he says. "We must repay the loan. We are not yet breaking even but we are growing steadily."

Encouragingly, the company has receive a royal seal of approval. At a local showcase, Sheikh Hamed bin Zayed spotted miniature Etihad planes at the Popular Popcorn stand. As the chairman of the airline, he was intrigued by the link between planes and popcorn.

"I told him,'Etihad has taken our product to the world'," says Mr Al Shekaili. "We have a lot of feedback on Facebook and Twitter from people flying Etihad asking where they can buy the popcorn. He loved that."

The following day, James Hogan, the chief executive of Etihad, called to place a new order.

 

lgutcher@thenational.ae