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How Cassandra Stavrou made Proper a global brand

The entrepreneur has captured a new breed of snacker with her gluten-free, low-calorie popcorn and lentil chips. She talks to Andy Martin about finding motivation in tragedy

Making a packet: ‘We want to be the next Walkers’

When Cassandra Stavrou was 14, her father contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He would live only another couple of years. As the eldest in her family, with a younger brother and sister, she felt that she had to become the main breadwinner. The company she set up ten years ago, Proper, producing a range of healthy snacks, “Propercorn” and now “Properchips”, should guarantee that they will never go hungry. Not even peckish.

She has a theory. “It’s staggering, the number of young female entrepreneurs who lost a parent early on. It forces you to go out and do something. And it gives you a level of fearlessness. You’re presented with tragedy and you build up resilience. I felt I had to look after my family. That’s where the entrepreneurial commitment came from.”

Now 36, Stavrou was born in north London to Cypriot parents. Nearly everyone in her extended family ran a business of some kind. “For me,” says Stavrou, “starting a business was when not if.” She came up with lots of bright ideas that went nowhere. Before Proper there was a dating website, then there was a frozen yoghurt called “Yeti”. Stavrou studied law at Bristol University, but set up “Student Club Nights” in her first year and by her third was spending more of her time on clubbing than on her degree. “That was my first responsible experience of business. You have an incredibly captive consumer base. Thousands of students desperate to go out every night. It wasn’t too challenging.”

The turning point came when she was working as an account assistant at an advertising agency in Soho. “At 3 every afternoon, I noticed how people would troop out of the office to have a snack. It was either rice cakes, which taste like cardboard, or they were eating chocs or crisps, which they felt guilty about. You’d hear people saying, ‘Oh god, I’ve just scoffed another chocky bar!’” For different reasons, all the available options seemed unsatisfactory. Stavrou’s insight was that popcorn could be the solution. “I thought it would be a great product. It’s not niche, like kale. It’s global – I wanted to make a mass brand. It’s healthy and it’s gluten-free and low in calories. It just has to be seasoned in the right way – the stuff you eat in cinemas is not.”

It’s staggering, the number of young female entrepreneurs who lost a parent early on. It forces you to go out and do something. And it gives you a level of fearlessness

She rushed home and told her mum all about her vision. Mrs Stavrou reminded her of the last present Mr Stavrou had bought his daughter before he died: presciently enough, it was a popcorn machine. The young Stavrou had shoved it up in the loft and forgotten about it. Now she got up there and retrieved it and dusted it down. “I’m not fatalistic, but it was a good sign,” she says.
She quit her job the next day. She thought she could crack it in a couple of months – it took a couple of years. She spent a lot of time going around the industrial estates of England, seeking a manufacturer. But she was a young woman with no experience and she was given short shrift by the captains of industry. So she bought a cement mixer. That would do for making large amounts of popcorn.

But how to apply the seasoning? Stavrou happened to be watching an episode of Top Gear and Clarkson and co were going on about how the paintwork on cars is finished with a very fine mist. So she went out and bought a car spray kit and used that. They (Stavrou and her co-founder Ryan Kohn) launched in 2011 and since have managed to find a more conventional assembly line.
“We’re not a start-up any more,” says Stavrou. “We’re the largest indie snack brand. We want to be the next Walkers.” In the meantime they have acquired the backing of the Innocent drinks venture fund, JamJar, and Stavrou has been garlanded with awards, including an MBE earlier this year.

I’m fairly sure my mother told me not to eat between meals. Now everybody is doing it. Or as Stavrou puts it, in a stat that would have appalled my old mother, “Total snacking is £3.2bn”. This comes under the heading of what is known in the trade as “CSN” – crisps, snacks and nuts. In the US a quarter of all calories consumed comes from snacking. In the UK there was double-digit growth during lockdown. But this may not necessarily mean the wrong kind growth ie sideways, specifically in the waist area. “What’s really interesting,” says Stavrou, “is that the healthy segment within that is growing ahead of the growth trajectory.” If you break it down by consumer, the growth among Generation Z and millennials is even more pronounced. Proper is vegan: “It chimes in with people’s values”. They can zero in on specific consumers that the big legacy brands cannot reach.

Stavrou argues that we are snacking more for lots of reasons. Not only are we working from home but (and I’m sure Netflix are delighted about this) we are in danger of becoming known as “the Netflix generation”: there is a huge increase in people lounging around on the sofa and they want to break up the day. “It’s like the cigarette break of old,” says Stavrou. But at least it’s not cigarettes. Proper is better for you than those snacks they used to shove in outside the agency in Soho: they use less fat, less sugar, they don’t use palm oil, and they scrupulously source their ingredients. “We are Europe’s first palm-oil-free microwavable popcorn,” as Stavrou says. They’re now certified “B corp” ethical – and they’re even on the NHS website as beneficial for “gut health”.

The good news for snackers is that there are four new categories in the Proper pipeline. The bad news is that they’re all top secret for now. But I can reveal that, contrary to my old mother’s advice, I have become a convert to their lentil chips, salt and vinegar flavour. Somebody stop me from buying one of their “sharing bags” – I may not want to share.