A golden chance seized by Antrim snack leader

Antrim business leader Sean McClinton reacted to the pandemic’s challenge to his food manufacturing business by bringing forward a highly innovative snack product that’s already captured the attention of Aldi Ireland, one of the biggest and most successful grocery retailers in the Republic of Ireland.

By Sam Butler
Sunday, 21st February 2021, 5:06 pm
Sean McClinton, managing director of Golden Popcorn in Antrim, which has just launched an innovative range of novel plant based snacks
Sean McClinton, managing director of Golden Popcorn in Antrim, which has just launched an innovative range of novel plant based snacks

Sean, managing director of Golden Popcorn, a successful producer of cinema-style popcorn, faced a grave threat to his longstanding business with the shuttering key outlets, such as cinemas, bowling alleys and leisure centres, here and in the Republic.

“While I appreciated that it was necessary to close the cinemas and other leisure outlets during the first and subsequent lockdowns, the decisions were a setback for our small business,” Sean says. “We were among the most successful suppliers of cinema popcorn on the island before the pandemic. We are confident that this business will be recovered when the restrictions are lifted. We were fortunate, however, in also having developed a strong retail base that includes Aldi Ireland, Tesco and other supermarkets.”

The company’s determination to surmount the pandemic challenge included the creation and launch of Gourmet Crunch, a novel range of plant based snacks in line with market trends forwards healthier foods. Aldi subsequently placed a £500,000 order for a version of the snack under its brand for its 140 grocery stores across the Republic.

Based just outside Antrim town since 2017, Golden Popcorn has always monitored its markets closely and had identified the trend towards healthier products especially low-sugar and low-calorie options for children and young people in particular.

While popcorn is not always perceived as being healthy, the air-popped and lightly seasoned product is low in salt, made from whole grain and high in fibre and is seen as a healthier by experts. Whole grain and high-fibre have been linked to lower risks of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and other health problems.

Sean continues: “We’ve long been aware of this important trend towards plant based foods and have been developing our response for some time. Gourmet Crunch is the first outcome of this strategic focus on novel and healthier snacks. It’s a trend which has accelerated during the pandemic and is likely to continue. The snack market, of course, is also among the fastest moving sectors in food retailing; one in which demand for new and different taste experiences is particularly strong.

“Our approach is based on a conviction that healthier snacking doesn’t have to be boring, and I am convinced that our new product certainly fits the bill.”

A lighter plant based ingredient from Asia that’s essentially pressed from granulated cassava root was pinpointed by the new product team in Antrim for the new range.

“What we also did was to develop strong flavours for the products which include an Oriental styled Thai Chilli to reflect the sourcing of the basic ingredient, as well as traditional Cheese and Onion, a long established flavour here,” he explains.

“Manufacturing the product also required special machinery, and we were helped to acquire this by Invest NI, always immensely supportive of our business. The Republic of Ireland is our main market and our latest deal with Aldi is another significant step forward for our enterprise.

“Invest NI’s business development support has been invaluable in helping us to build relationships with high profile supermarket chains like Aldi. The agency’s support has assisted us to build our brand and expand our product range to meet the needs of the increasing appetite for healthier snacks. We are optimistic that this deal will be a catalyst for success in other markets,” adds Sean. Invest NI provided £45,000 towards the purchase of new equipment as well as expert business advice and guidance through a range of virtual ‘meet the buyer’ events.

John Hood, Invest NI’s Food & Drink director, describes the company as “a highly ambitious enterprise which is using innovation, new product development and exports to ensure long-term sustainability”.

“It’s a winning strategy,” he adds. “Which is earning the company a strong reputation in the snack industry and now paying dividends in the Republic. Our introductions to Aldi Ireland, alongside support for new equipment and expert business advice has been a successful combination for the company. This deal represents another great milestone for Golden Popcorn and one which we look forward to supporting Sean and his time to expand.”

The two Gourmet Crunch snacks - Thai Sweet Chill and Cheese and Onion – have just 75 calories in each bag.

Golden Popcorn, which was established in 1996 to produce bulk popcorn for cinemas here, currently employs 23 people at its modern production plant. In 2011, it expanded into retail and also invested in its business with cinemas and other leisure outlets.

Sean, who was part of the acquisition of the business in 2014, attributes Golden Popcorn’s outstanding success to “our longstanding commitment to using only the best quality ingredients with high standards of food safety and hygiene”.

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