JOHANNESBURG - A Johannesburg entrepreneur is popping popcorn to break the vicious cycle of poverty in his family.
Former cabin crew Emile Alexander started Emilio’s Gourmet Popcorn two years ago to break the cycle with R1500 that he had borrowed from a relative.
He says he is the first person in Africa to introduce gourmet popcorns, which come in a variety of flavours. The business already boasts presence in Montecasino, one of the country’s prime gambling complexes.
Alexander, who grew up in Westbury, Eldorado Park and Ennerdale, describes himself as having been always business-minded. He says when he was just 17, he set up a hot-dog stand at a jazz festival held at the Zoo Lake.
After year long sting as a cabin crew he started an import/export business dealing mostly with clothing. “I started investing the little profit I made on buying and renting out properties around Johannesburg.I sold some of the houses to finance more property purchases,” he recalls.
In 2007, he opened Jimmy’s Killer Prawns in Kyalami and another branch in Midrand two years later. The businesses went under in 2011 and Alexander lost everything. He says Jimmy’s Killer Prawns brand was not doing well at the time. “It was also the time of the global economic meltdown. In retrospect I think it was the brand because I really worked hard. I was there everyday, customer service was superb and our food and hygiene were above board. I became broke and had to start all over again,” he says.
Not prepared to throw in the towel, Alexander tried his hand in construction, digital media, and business training businesses that “went sour”. He admits that he was “really depressed” at the end of 2014. The following year, he did some research and came across the gourmet popcorn phenomenon.
“I remembered that in my travels with SAA I used to see gourmet popcorns in New York and Atlanta. I saw there was a gap in the market here in South Africa as no one did gourmet popcorns,” says Alexander.
He borrowed money from a family member, bought all the ingredients and started popping popcorn in his kitchen and selling it to his community, before starting his brand, Emilio’s Gourmet Popcorn.
He opened his first pop up at the Johannesburg Market, followed by another one at the Neighbourgoods Market, then Fourways Farmers’ Market, and Maboneng Precinct. “People started buying my popcorn for catering purpose and parties. I also started supplying my first Spar supermarket in Bryanston in November 2015.”
Alexander thanks his friend, Chef Kelvin Joel of the Johannesburg Culinary and Pastry School, for allowing him to use his place when his popcorn business was still in its infancy.
“I don’t think I would be in this position if he didn’t offer me his massive support. I think people don’t understand how important support is,” says Alexander, who now rents his own place he uses as a factory in Selby.
He speaks passionately about his brand, saying: “We are the first people to introduce gourmet popcorn in South Africa. Our product tastes the best. I don’t think anybody is able to make it nice as us. Our brand is about happiness, the slogan is ‘Handmade happiness, Popcorn perfected’. The main aim of Emilio’s is to bring happiness to our customers, that’s the whole ethos of the business - to spread happiness.” He says he wants to live a legacy for his children and family. “I’m going to make it. I have to make it because I’m sick and tired of coming from a poverty background. This (business) will break the cycle of poverty in my family,” says the entrepreneur, who employs 10 permanent staff.
His next target is to get funding in order to expand . “Our goal is to come up with a working franchise model. The business is growing very fast.” As part of Emilio’s corporate social investment, Alexander says once a year they make a massive popcorn donut which they sell in their Montecasino shop. The proceeds go towards buying school stationery for needy pupils in the impoverished township of Diepsloot - a densely populated township in the north of Johannesburg.
- BUSINESS REPORT