Angie's Boom Chicka Pop Sweet Barbeque popcorn
Angie’s Boomchickapop debuted a sweet barbecue variety of ready-to-eat popcorn at Natural Products Expo West.

ANAHEIM, CALIF. — The ready-to-eat popcorn category has exploded in recent years, posting double-digit growth led by small startup brands such as Angie’s Boomchickapop. The mom-and-pop popcorn business, based in North Mankato, Minn., came in ahead of such established brands as Cracker Jack, Crunch ‘n Munch and Orville Redenbacher’s Poppycock with $40.1 million in U.S. multi-outlet sales in the year ended Feb. 22, 2015, according to Information Resources, Inc.

Angie Bastian, Angie's Boom Chicka Pop
Angie Bastian, co-founder of Angie’s Boomchickapop

“Our expansion in the last three years has been explosive, and we are just trying to keep up right now,” said Angie Bastian, co-founder of Angie’s Boomchickapop.

At Natural Products Expo West, held March 10-13 in Anaheim., Angie’s Boomchickapop debuted a sweet barbecue variety of ready-to-eat popcorn, featuring smoked paprika, onions, garlic, sea salt and maple sugar. Like the brand’s other varieties, which include white cheddar, salted caramel and sea salt and vinegar, the new flavor is gluten-free and Non-GMO Project verified.

“We have a sweet and spicy (popcorn), and everybody loved it, and we thought, ‘Let’s figure out if we can do something for summer,’” Ms. Bastian said. “And honestly I thought the sweet and spicy went really well with beer, so we thought let’s do something that celebrates summer. Sweet barbecue is a way to celebrate summer.”

She said the company tested dozens of different barbecue flavor combinations before landing on the final recipe.

“It’s very tasty,” she said. “We put it on the table for our staff, and a couple of them ate the whole bag.”

The business initially began as a kettle corn company in the Bastian family’s garage in 2001. Ms. Bastian and her husband, Dan, peddled homemade kettle corn in a few local stores and at events.

“By 2012, we said, ‘We are much more than kettle corn,’ so we did some work in launching a brand that we could expand and move beyond kettle corn, so that’s when we launched Boomchickapop with our sea salt popcorn,” Ms. Bastian said. “And in four months, that popcorn became our No. 1 selling s.k.u…. So we took a look at it, and we started converting all of our products into Boomchickapop, and that was completed by end of 2014.”

Angie's Boom Chicka Pop sea salt popcorn
Boomchickapop launched with its sea salt popcorn flavor.

Since relaunching as Boomchickapop, the brand has landed national distribution in Target, Safeway, Kroger, Costco and, most recently, Wal-Mart.

“What’s crazy about ready-to-eat popcorn is that every retailer is looking for healthy, better-for-you snacks with simple ingredients, and they’re looking to eliminate artificial ingredients out of their offerings, and we’ve always been like this,” Ms. Bastian said. “We used to live in the natural and organic aisle because that’s where they’d put us. And now that’s the place where there’s growth in grocery stores. And they get it, so now they’re reaching out to us, and we’re happy to be there.”

In an interview with Food Business News, Ms. Bastian discussed the ins and outs of product development, including the popcorn flavor that never made it to shelves.

Food Business News: In the past few years, there has been more competition in the ready-to-eat popcorn category. How do you differentiate your brand?

Angie Bastian: The competition makes us better. It makes us look at ourselves, makes us be more efficient.

Popcorn sales chart
Click to enlarge chart: Leading ready-to-eat popcorn brands in the U.S. in 2015

Popcorn is a healthy snack, and the companies that are doing well in the category are the ones who are offering better-for-you snack with simple ingredients and nothing artificial. That’s what we’ve always done. We just never broadcast it or highlighted it. So, what it’s made us do is begin to talk about it. It wasn’t a change in what we did. It’s just how we talk about our product.

What challenges do you face in product development?

Ms. Bastian: In beginning when we were doing this five or six years ago, you couldn’t find some non-G.M.O. ingredients, and we’d have to go international to get ingredients, like to Canada. Over the last number of years, there are a lot more ingredients being offered in non-G.M.O., which is helpful. It removes some of the barriers of developing new products.

Every time we’ve developed something, it had to meet our basic criteria. Whatever was on Whole Foods’ list of acceptable ingredients, that was our list. There was nothing that was banned by Whole Foods that could go into our food. Those were the guardrails for our R.&D. team.

They’ve been able to develop new products within those guardrails. There’s lots of room now because there are more ingredients that do meet the non-G.M.O. criteria, and companies are getting better about managing cross contamination, and we have much more latitude to develop products.

Angie's Boom Chicka Pop flavors, non-G.M.O.
Making products with non-G.M.O. ingredients has become easier for Angie's as more clean, simple ingredients have become available.

Dairy is tricky to get Non-GMO verified. If you’re using real cheese, the farmers have to provide proof of the past three years of what the cow has eaten. In the beginning when we started this, nobody was doing that. Very few people.

Now that some time has passed, those kinds of records are beginning to exist, and those kinds of ingredients are starting to come to the market. So I have seen a shift in the availability of getting clean, simple ingredients.

How long does it take to develop a new flavor?

Ms. Bastian: It just depends on how hot we are to get something out there. There are some flavors that we have worked on for years and are just not satisfied with them, and then there are other ones we developed and said, ‘Okay, that’s it; let’s go,’ and that happened in a week or two. 

It just depends if it tastes right because it’s always about taste first for us. So it always has to taste the best we’ve ever tasted. Everybody in the office tastes. We had one ready to launch in the past couple months, and we just said, ‘Nope, that one’s not going.’ It wasn’t as good as it could be, so it goes back on the backburner. And we try again.

Can you give an example of a flavor that didn’t make the cut?

Ms. Bastian: Years ago, we tried a strawberry one. We were doing single-serve packs for Halloween and Easter baskets for Target, and we wanted to do a strawberry kettle corn. We got dried strawberry powder we could sprinkle on, and when we did shelf-life testing and it didn’t stick or the flavor didn’t keep. So then we had this option of using a natural flavor, and that didn’t work. We tried delivering on it, and we were like, ‘No. Not again.’ So that’s one that didn’t work for us.

How many people are involved in your product testing?

Ms. Bastian: Our corporate office is in Mankato, where our plant is, and in that office there’s probably 25 to 30 people. We just opened an office in downtown Minneapolis, and there’s another 20 in that office.

We also have a sensory team that we hired locally in Mankato. People come in from the community and do sensory testing for us. Just regular people off the street that would buy products in the grocery store.

What’s your nutritional criteria?

Ms. Bastian: We’re looking for probably the lowest amount of calories that we can get per serving while delivering on flavor. It’s a balance of making sure the product first tastes good and then can be lightened up on, let’s say the caramel or cheese, in a way that can reduce the calories and not lose taste. 

Angie's Boom Chicka Puff varieties
Angie's developed Boomchickapuff for Target’s Made to Matter program last year.

Have you considered expanding the brand into other categories?

Ms. Bastian: Last year for Target’s Made to Matter program, we did a non-G.M.O. corn, quinoa and sorghum puff they wanted in nacho cheese. We did an ancient grain nacho puff, and we did a white cheddar puff and a sweet and salty puff. So, yes, we’ve experimented a little bit. We kind of dipped our toe in the water, and we’ll see where that goes.

How did that partnership come about?

Ms. Bastian: Target was looking for innovation. A lot of people are innovating around puffs. They asked if we were interested in doing some other things, and we also did popcorn clusters with popped sorghum and popped amaranth with nuts and fruit.

So they were asking for innovation, and we just delivered on a couple of platforms, and they picked which they wanted. We had a great year there. Target is a great partner for us.