Pandemic sets sales of microwavable popcorn a-pinging
While the closure of cinemas during the pandemic has eaten into popcorn sales, demand for the microwavable form of the popular snack has reached new records, according to Europe's biggest producer.
Natais is a small family-run company nestled in the rolling hills of southwest France, with the snow-capped Pyrenees visible in the distance.
Set up by its current chief executive Michael Ehmann in 1994, the popcorn maker employs a workforce of 140 and, with annual sales of 65 million euros ($75 million), currently commands a share of nearly 40 percent of the European market.
It supplies more than 80 percent of France's cinemas, but overseas sales account for more than 90 percent of annual turnover and Natais exports to more than 50 countries, including its main markets of Britain, Romania, Germany and Spain.
At the factory's towering silos visible from miles around, fully automated production lines fill up to 300 bags of microwavable popcorn per minute, while others fill sacks -- ranging in size from 25 kilograms to 930 kilograms (55 pounds to 2,050 pounds) -- of popcorn destined for cinemas.
"The health crisis has had negative consequences for our network of suppliers to cinemas, but also positive consequences, because sales of microwavable popcorn have risen sharply," Ehmann told AFP.
Last year indeed saw sales of microwavable bags taking off, according to sales director Helene Ricau.
"The market was already expanding in Europe, but with the health crisis, microwavable popcorn has exploded," she told AFP.
"During the lockdowns, people discovered popcorn as a sort of comfort food in these gloomy times."
Natais sold more than 200 million bags of popcorn in Europe in 2020 and 207 million in 2021, Ricau said.
"We're targeting annual growth rates of 4.0-5.0 percent in the coming years. Unlike in the US, the market has not yet reached maturity in Europe," she said.
- Ecological agriculture -
Natais cooperates with 220 farmers, including 28 who work on an ecological basis.
While some of the farmers are in South Africa to ensure supplies across the whole year, the majority are local.
One of them, Pierre Alem, said his family has tilled the soil since the French Revolution.
His 199-hectare (490-acre) farm grows not only popcorn corn, but also rapeseed, barley, sunflowers, and corn for animal feed.
Alem said his father first started growing popcorn corn in 2008 on around 20 hectares, but has since more than doubled the surface area which now yields around 200 tonnes each year.
Natais provides the seeds and pays him to grow grain and vegetables in between harvests, an ecological form of agriculture that seeks to "capture carbon in the soil... and prevent erosion," Alem said.
But popcorn corn "brings more added value compared to corn for animal feed", he said.
It hasn't been only the closure of cinemas that has eaten into sales, but once they were reopened many countries required spectators to wear their masks throughout the film and snacks were banned.
At a cinema in Blagnac, near Toulouse, 16-year-old high school student Rayan Aguilar complains that he hasn't been able to eat popcorn while watching a film.
"Cinema without popcorn, it's weird," he says, impatient for the lifting of the ban in France next week.
The manager of the 15-screen multiplex, Jean-Baptiste Salvat, said that turnover had fallen by 20-30 percent as a direct result of the ban.
"Popcorn is one of the top products at the confectionery counter," he said.