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Here's How This Singaporean Millennial’s Gourmet Popcorn Business Grew 247% Amidst The Pandemic

When workplaces and borders started closing amidst the COVD-19 pandemic, Zac Chua, the 29-year-old founder and CEO of local popcorn company The Kettle Gourmet, knew that his business was in trouble.

“I was initially worried because it was my first time ever experiencing a ‘black swan’ event as a business owner,” he said. “My industry is affected – I have business dealings with the tourism industry and I have overseas suppliers.”

Launched in 2017 a solo venture out of the Singapore Management University (SMU), The Kettle Gourmet produces quirky, local-inspired popcorn flavours like Kaya Butter Toast, Chicken Floss, and Chili Crab. Within a year, the business had reached a daily sales volume of 300 bags of popcorn. They had also accrued over 200 clients, including Facebook, Trip Advisor, and the Singapore Police Force. They sold over 10,000 bags of popcorn at an event in December 2018 and distributed their products online and in cafes.

Naturally, the shuttering of offices and eateries didn’t bode well for the young company.

“We do supply to quite a number of corporate pantries (B2B) through our pantry subscription and hotels, so when offices closed during circuit breaker we took a hit initially,” he said.  

But Chua, who started the business with less than $100, was not easily deterred. People who get the munchies at work still get them at home. And being stuck indoors amidst the circuit breaker meant that they were using their devices more than ever. So Chua and his team leveraged their digital-first business structure to reach people who were working from home.

Subsequently, online sales more than doubled, leading to a 247% growth in revenue. This more than compensated for the losses they experienced when offices and tourism shut down. The company was net profiting month on month and was able to retain all of its staff. Amidst all of the uncertainty, they were even able to rebrand their product with more family-friendly packaging.

It’s “safe to assume we’re a popular Netflix companion,” Chua said, when we joked that people needed something to eat while binge-watching TV during the circuit breaker.

Keep reading to see what else Chua shared about making the circuit breaker work for The Kettle Gourmet.

WW: As an entrepreneur, how has working from home affected how you run your business? Any thoughts on the pivot to working remotely?

ZC: In terms of daily operations, nothing much has changed. Because I structured my business model and team such that everyone is KPI driven and knows exactly what they need to do to get things done. (I’m honoured to have such a young and driven team who is results driven like me.)

My business meetings with external stakeholders are all conducted via Zoom now, and it’s way more productive as I save on travelling time. I feel that this is a period where you can observe those who are resistant to technological changes and those who welcome ambiguity. It’s a good opportunity to see people with fixed mindset versus a growth mindset.

Which flavour has been the most popular during this period?

Nasi Lemak. Someone ordered 4,000 bags of this flavour in 1 order. I don’t even know how or why because now no large-scale events, haha. Also Kaya Butter Toast – can’t go wrong with this. And Salted Caramel – people who want to try my popcorn, but find Nasi Lemak and Chilli Crab too scary will order this play-safe flavour.

Tell us about the process of rebranding. Why did you do it, and how did your team come up with the characters? Was this all done during the WFH period?

We worked very closely with a reputable agency who understood our needs and align with my vision. Because popcorn is and has always been a fun product, it’s always a good feeling to go back to what we loved as children. So we gave each bag a cartoon character - something that is really simple, fun and expressive. Even though you eat our popcorn with your mouth, I believe you feast with the eyes first. We want to show customers that we put in a lot of effort and love into each bag of popcorn. As I always tell my team, don't look at us as just a popcorn company because we sell imagination through the medium of popcorn.

Why rebrand? There is no guarantee, but I look at branding as an investment where your returns are unknown - but if done right, can take your business to a whole new level. So with limited downsides and unlimited upsides, why not?

Everything was done during WFH. I felt that this was a good opportunity to work on our business foundation. Since the entire economy is stagnating during the pandemic, and most companies are on defence mode (trying to survive), why not take the time to work on your business foundation and figure how to stand out in the industry? We also want to set a fresh tone to welcome the new normal - show our commitment to going beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Find out more about The Kettle Gourmet here

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