Gourmet popcorn meets export, franchise demands

Grant Jones, center, with the KuKuRuZa Saudi Arabia team.
SEATTLE – Create great gourmet popcorn and the world will beat a path to your door. At least that’s been Grant and Ashley Jones’ experience with their Seattle-based business, KuKuRuZa Gourmet Popcorn.
This winter, popcorn is flying off shelves in Puget Sound stores as tasty treats for Christmas and Kwanzaa celebrations. But its appeal is broader than that.
Export and franchise
Earlier this year, a KuKuRuZa store opened in the Hayat Mall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where customers were invited to break the fast of Ramadan with flavors first developed in the Joneses’ Woodinville garage just three years earlier.
The franchise agreement calls for up to 25 KuKuRuZa stores to open in the Middle East in the next five years. Other possibilities are being discussed in Japan, New Zealand, Australia and India.
With assistance from the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC), the company was able to build a comprehensive export and franchise strategy without short changing the needs of the growing domestic market.
The Washington SBDC provides no-cost business advising to small business owners. It is a program of the U.S. Small Business Administration, Washington State University and other economic development agencies and institutions of higher education.
As part of its comprehensive strategy, KuKuRuZa this month opened a 5,400-square-foot distribution center that will allow the company to keep up with burgeoning demand, not just at brick and mortar stores but through online sales as well.
Caramel, cheese, seasonal peppermint
KuKuRuZa is to Cracker Jacks what Triple Cr̬me Brie is to Velveeta Рbut better. The Joneses spent a year perfecting flavors, working to get exactly the right combinations of sweet and salty, crunchy and chewy.
Popcorn lovers at KuKuRuZa in downtown Seattle and Ballard – and at sister store Popcorn Pavilion in Bellevue – can choose from up to 25 flavors, ranging from trendy favorites like Hawaiian Salted Caramel to seasonal treats such as Eggnog Brandy. As tantalizing as each variety is, Grant Jones said he knew they had it right when the whole was better than each of the component parts.
The popcorn is also sold online at http://kukuruza.com.
Franchises in demand
Apparently KuKuRuZa popcorn has created believers. Jones said he didn’t intend to pursue franchise agreements – especially not international franchise agreements – so early in his business plan, but entrepreneurs pursued him.
“Seattle, it turns out, carries a lot of weight,” said Jones, trying to explain the international appeal of his three-year-old company. Home to Starbucks, Microsoft and Amazon, Seattle has global cachet as a center for innovation and high-end entrepreneurs.

Ashley and Grant Jones in the Popcorn Pavilion in
Bellevue, Wash.


Jones freely admits that his inspiration was Garrett Popcorn, the Chicago-based company that made a combination of cheese popcorn and caramel popcorn famous. A relative suggested the business opportunity after noticing long lines for popcorn whenever he traveled through Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

Prior to starting the popcorn business, Jones was a partner in an urban farming project. Retail was a new challenge, he said, but he and Ashley figured it out as they went. 
They opened Popcorn Pavilion in Bellevue in December 2009. In April 2011, they acquired KuKuRuZa at Third and Pike in Seattle and made plans to expand the brand. Another KuKuRuZa store opened in Ballard in June 2012.
Help toward purposeful growth
But when faced with the prospect of negotiating an international franchise agreement, the Joneses decided to contact the Washington SBDC.
“We had zero experience in franchises or international trade,” Grant Jones said.
He began working with Rich Shockley at the SBDC office at Highline Community College, and Shockley called in Joseph Vogel, an SBDC international trade specialist. Suddenly Jones had immediate expertise in franchise agreements and international trade. Vogel even had specific experience in the Middle East, Jones said.
Vogel’s experience and expertise allowed KuKuRuZa to construct a thorough international expansion strategy. Working with the SBDC, Jones said, enabled him to move forward methodically and purposefully, rather than simply reacting to sporadic demand or new franchise inquiries.
Strategic vision, goals
In addition to helping with franchise agreements, Jones said, Shockley and Vogel facilitated strategic planning.
“It’s so easy when you have so much going on to focus on what you have in front of you,” he said. But Shockley helped him look at the business more broadly: “This is where we are now, and this is where we want to be. How do we get there?”
Four years ago, the Joneses never imagined they’d be where they are now. But with a solid business plan in place and trusted advisors to consult when necessary, it seems they are in a good place.
“Once you open the doors, you never know what’s going to happen,” Grant Jones said.
About the SBDC
The Washington SBDC has been providing one-to-one business advising, at no cost, to entrepreneurs and small business owners across the state for more than 30 years. The Washington SBDC Network includes 32 certified business advisors working in 26 locations and four international trade specialists working in Spokane and South Seattle.  For more information, go to http://www.wsbdc.org and type in your zip code to find the advisor nearest you.