The Sunny’s Pop store looks and smells like an old-fashioned sweet shop; only it carries half the guilt. The sweets jars that line the wall are filled with air-popped gourmet popcorn with flavours that range from honey mustard to bubblegum burst.
The company is the brainchild of Sunny Landeros, a mother of five from Texas who moved to Dubai two years ago.
Motivated by providing a heathy snack for her children, Ms Landeros began experimenting with different flavours of popcorn in her kitchen. Eventually, she left her job in the beauty business to set up Sunny’s Pop in Dubai Investment Park in April. Since then, the business has grown to become the exclusive popcorn supplier to Vox Cinemas throughout the Middle East region with plans to expand across the UAE.
“Where I grew up there was this popcorn shop that my mum would take me to when I had cheerleader tryouts or good grades,” says Ms Landeros. “I learnt how to make popcorn when I was young and I would make kettle corn for the kids, but they got bored of that so we came up with different flavours.”
Flavours such as cinnamon toast, sweet chili lime and dark chocolate cheesecake were developed during this phase. Sunny’s Pop now has 50 flavours, all produced on site in the store with the help of her three employees. The only flavour she refuses to carry is plain salted.
“If I do, people will never try anything else,” she says.
However, while the gourmet popcorn market the in the UAE is growing steadily, it is still relatively small. According to Euromonitor International, the overall popcorn market which includes the microwaveable variety, is expected to be worth US$2.8 million by the end of this year, and is expected to rise to $3m next year. Consumption per household has grown to 0.3kg this year from 0.2kg last year.
The popcorn market is led by international manufacturer American Popcorn, with the company’s Jolly Time brand accounting for 37 per cent of the market in 2013, followed by American Garden Products and Newman’s Own.
Another local firm is the Al Shekaili brothers’ Popular Pocorn, backed by the Khalifa Fund, which counts Etihad Airways as a customer, and has successfully expanded into international markets, including Japan.
“These companies mainly target western expats as they are familiar with microwave popcorn and seek healthier forms of popcorn such as low fat and lower salt options in store,” says an analyst at Euromonitor Internationl. “With rising demand for convenient food, microwave popcorn has become popular as well as new flavours targeting Asian and Arab nationals such as hot and spicy flavours.”
But gourmet popcorn has also started to gain traction in the UAE with the establishment of three major US brands — Garrets, Popcornopolis and Poparazzi’s. Both Garrets and Poparazzi’s import its popcorn from the US, while Popcornopolis ships it over from Kuwait.
“It is a case of educating customers,” says Ms Landeros. “My mission is to just get people to try it, once they do, almost every single person buys it.” Sunny’s Pop produces about 500kg of popcorn a week, which is delivered all around Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. Some of its flavours are also stocked by retailer Sweet Factory in Dubai.
Ms Landeros imports all her corn from the US. “We could go down to the souq and buy the ingredients for a few dirhams, but we pay around Dh100-150 per kilo because of the quality of the corn. We are a more expensive product but once customers taste ours, they taste the difference immediately.”
The company is now looking to open two stores in Dubai and one in an Abu Dhabi mall.
“We have plans to expand,” says Ms Landeors. “We would like to start a franchise model in at least a year from now. We are trying to keep it as cost effective as possible. We are not being backed by a big company, we have to do this smartly.”
Sunny’s Pop is also hoping its exposure to markets like Jordan and Qatar via Vox Cinema will help generate interest to pave the way for further regional expansion.