BOULDER, COLO. — Transparency, as Kristy Lewis has learned, can be tricky. Her company, Boulder-based Quinn Popcorn, last year launched an ingredient traceability initiative that has added challenges to sourcing. Each bag of the brand’s ready-to-eat popcorn features a batch number that consumers may submit at QuinnPopcorn.com to learn the origin of each ingredient.
“Some vendors open up, and some don’t,” said Ms. Lewis, founder and chief executive officer of Quinn Popcorn. “We don’t work with the ones that have sealed lips, so we limit our supplier options drastically.”
Driven by a mission to “clean up” microwave popcorn, Ms. Lewis left her job at a game company in 2010 to develop and launch the brand, named after her son.
“I grew up with microwave popcorn; it was my favorite childhood snack,” she said. “In my 20s I became aware of the chemicals that lined the bag, the additives, the artificial flavorings and colorings, and I couldn’t believe it was still in existence. It’s a huge category, and parents are feeding this to their kids and thinking it’s a healthy snack because it’s a whole grain product.”
Her company introduced the trademarked Pure Pop Bag, the market’s first compostable microwave popcorn bag free of chemical lining. The bags are packaged with flavor pouches that consumers may pour over the popped kernels. (The pouches “allow us to use better ingredients,” the company says on its web site). Varieties include maple and sea salt, Parmesan and rosemary, butter and sea salt, hickory smoked cheddar, olive oil and herbs, and sea salt.
Next came ready-to-eat popcorn with the “farm-to-bag” initiative and such flavors as kale and sea salt, California olive oil, and extra virgin coconut oil.
In an interview with Food Business News, Ms. Lewis discussed the challenges of sourcing organic ingredients and shared her hopes for the packaged food industry.
FBN: Tell me about the farm-to-bag program. What inspired you to launch this initiative, and what kind of feedback have you received?
Ms. Lewis: I think it’s extremely important that we know where our food comes from and how it’s produced. Snack companies are extremely secretive, and consumers are left in the dark. We are changing that.
Using your batch number you can see exactly what went into making each bag. Snacks with complete transparency. It’s never been done before, and the feedback that we have received has been tremendously positive. It’s what food should be. Simple, honest, and transparent. Packaged food should be no different.
How does product development work at your company?
Ms. Lewis: We are always coming up with new ideas. Some we kill within five minutes of the thought, and others we dig in a bit. Can we source the ingredients from suppliers we would like to work with? Is the cost of creating this product or flavor realistic? Will it sell on the shelves at the (suggested retail price)? Do consumers want this, and is there a need for it?
Then we start to fool around with ingredient ratios and do a ton of in-house testing. If we think it’s a viable product or flavor, we look at competitive data, (and) we do external flavor testing and brief market research.
But to be honest, in the past it’s been based entirely on gut.
Have you tried products or flavors that simply did not work?
Ms. Lewis: Yes, many. We had wanted to bring a peanut butter flavor to market, but the peanut flour was too chalky. In addition the expense of the ingredient was too great, and we decided it wasn’t going to work.
Are there any other food categories you’d like to “clean up”?
Ms. Lewis: Yes, but sadly I can’t discuss that...
What are the challenges of manufacturing products with transparency and organic ingredients?
Ms. Lewis: To source organic and non-G.M.O. ingredients is extremely challenging. The current supply can’t keep up with the demand, and thus the prices are astronomically high and the availability is limited.My hope is if the industry demands transparency, if the consumers demand to know where their food comes from, then suppliers will think twice about their manufacturing processes, food vendors will start sourcing ethically and responsibly, and it will eventually change our food system for the better. It’s idealistic, but I have to believe that it’s possible.