For the final instalment in our Conversations series, The Macallan Single Malt Scotch Whisky and Wallpaper* meet Cassandra Stavrou, the maverick entrepreneur who sells over £40m of her snacks every year, after creating her brand in her mum’s back garden.
It was almost 4pm in the canteen of a London-based advertising agency that Cassandra Stavrou experienced her defining moment of inspiration. All around her, fellow advertising executives were, as the young entrepreneur likes to term it, ‘slumping’. Hungry for a late-afternoon sugar hit, they munched on guilt-inducing chocolate bars or chewed carb-heavy energy bars ‘that looked and tasted like cardboard’.
In a flash, Stavrou, who had already tried, and unfortunately failed, to corner the healthy, frozen yogurt market with a previous venture, saw her opportunity: ‘To create a mass-appeal snack that was full of flavour and satisfying. Better for you, in a genuine sense, not just full of empty calories, but also, not an overly virtuous product that would announce “I’m on a diet”, or “I’m trying to be healthy” whenever you opened a packet.’
As Stavrou returned to her desk, the brand’s business plan and identity took shape in her head. Appealing to the sort of hard-working, hard-playing, health-conscious people she’d encountered at the staff canteen, her new range of popcorn recipes would be gluten-free, inventively favoured and deliver the myriad, slump-fighting benefits of wholegrain. She visualised a design-led brand, ‘with strong colours and dynamic graphics, a product that people were proud to be seen with’. Stavrou went home and shared this moment with her mum.
Stavrou’s mother reminded her of a possible inspiration for her stroke of creative genius. For her 16th birthday, her father had given his daughter a domestic popcorn machine – sadly his last gift to her before he died. Stavrou recalled how her dad had been a hopeless cook but made the best popcorn, spending hours obsessing over new flavours. ‘I’m not particularly superstitious but it was a lovely moment. I quit my job the next day.’ It wasn’t the first time Stavrou had performed an impulsive and audaciously brave career U-turn.
By her own admission, the self-styled kitchen revolutionary had been a mischievous school pupil, often in trouble with teachers. She tended to disobey the rules, react against institutions, and wasn’t particularly good at being told what to do. Even though she had studied law at university to please her proud parents, being a barrister probably wasn’t going to be her ideal career path. But from the age of 14, inspired by her hard-working, entrepreneurial father, Stavrou did know, for sure, that she wanted to run her own business. ‘It was a question of when,’ she says, ‘not if.’
Graduation found her heading not to the Bar but to London’s Soho to work for the multi-award-winning John Hegarty at the prestigious Bartle Bogle Hegarty advertising agency. Hegarty, the creative mastermind behind memorable campaigns across the apparel, motoring and hospitality industries, would later become a friend, ‘a great mentor and a trusted advisor’ to the young businesswoman. ‘During my tenure at the agency, John taught me about the importance of detail, caring about the little things, the personal touch. All of which have become central to the way I now run my own business.’
With the idea of launching a new snack food brand now taking shape, Stavrou gave up the West End of London to tour industrial estates visiting food manufacturers, suppliers and distributors. Without a salary, an office or a business HQ, and supplementing her new career with promotional work at trade fairs and exhibitions, she purchased a builder’s cement mixer to tumble sample amounts of popcorn variants in her mother’s back garden. Inventively, a car spray-paint gun was employed to apply the finest mist of seasoning possible in order to keep her snacks healthy and light.
From the beginning, Stavrou made sure that the new proper popcorn product, now called Propercorn, was uncompromisingly honest. ‘Our ingredients, flavours, the quality of the corn, everything along the supply chain, had to be the best that it could be,’ she insists. To appeal to a younger, more health-conscious demographic, the popcorn had to be presented as dynamic, stylish and aspirational. ‘Working with young, creative talent and up-and-coming illustrators we made the packaging bright and disruptive.’
But the product didn’t always pop quite as planned. When the first boxes were delivered to stores in 2011, Stavrou, working with her business partner Ryan Kohn, worked to try and understand the route to market for her new product, making some mistakes along the way. ‘We had to negotiate with big-volume suppliers who refused to take our initially small-time business particularly seriously,’ says Stavrou. ‘With our first order, we were very optimistic, and confident, over-ambitious about the numbers we thought we could shift.’ Thinking a six-month shelf-life meant they had six months to sell their stock, the business partners discovered that supermarkets expected food products to ensure a minimum shelf-life of four months at the point when it arrives at their depot. ‘Suddenly we only had only two months to sell everything we’d made. It was a miscalculation that could have easily bankrupted the company overnight. But, if anything, it made us sell and push harder than ever and probably gave us the kind of impetus to get things going at the pace that we’d always needed to be at. It was a huge mistake… but it ended up being a brilliant thing.’
The heady combination of happy accident, passion, tenacity, kitsch packaging design, hard work, self-belief and the novelty of some innovatively exotic flavour combinations quickly paid off; Stavrou’s Propercorn was a hit. Within months of its launch, the brand, already popular among health-conscious staff at the British Fashion Council, was invited to become the official snack food of London Fashion Week. ‘Having people like Rhianna and Anna Wintour snacking on your product at the front row of a fashion show is the kind of endorsement that money can’t buy.’ Nine years later, the Fashion Week partnership continues. The Propercorn business is now based in an open-plan, canal-side office building in Islington, North London, but its philosophy, practices and unique way of doing things remain based around the founder’s original kitchen table principles.
Characteristic of Stavrou’s predilection for rule-breaking and disrupting, working hours at the office are flexible, with staff members encouraged to come to the office but also free to work from home – a strategy that has been particularly helpful during the recent pandemic. There are also no set holiday allowances and staff vacations are not recorded. ‘I get my energy from other people, but some people need to be on their own in their own headspace to think really creatively. I think you have to respect that, not over-formalise things.’
The Propercorn business, Stavrou says, is built on trust, brand values, communication, a happy working environment – and, whenever possible (i.e. before current distancing measures were introduced) a communal lunch. ‘Every day we all sit down together and eat. We have a resident chef who cooks locally sourced, seasonal food for us. We play the opening bars of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” on the sound system and that’s the cue for the team to stop working and come to the table.’ New product lines and flavour ideas are discussed, plans for the Propercorn brand’s future mapped out. ‘Currently we’re in around ten countries all around Europe. We want to put our foot on the accelerator and add more. People often ask me, “How do you hold onto your brand’s culture as you grow?” The question for me is more, “How do you make it better as you grow? How do you continue to push the culture on, and make sure that the business is really progressive and leading?” All Cassandra Stavrou’s best ideas, it seems, come to her in the staff canteen.
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