The entrepreneur has unveiled a range of six flavors of Willy Chase’s Fit Corn that is being manufactured in a facility on his farm in Herefordshire in the UK. Flavors include lightly salted, cider vinegar and salted honey (see box-out below).
Rolling out to independent stores and delis this month, the air-popped products are targeted at consumers seeking a healthier snack and will be priced from £0.99 ($1.41) for a 20 g bag.
Chase was a farmer selling bulk potatoes to supermarkets as a commodity before setting up premium potato chips business Tyrrells in 2002.
Following rapid growth, the business was bought from Chase by private equity firm Langholm Capital in 2008 for around £30m ($42m), and has since been sold to another private equity firm, Investcorp, for £100m ($143m).
Premium gin and vodka
Chase went on to launch spirits business Chase Distillery, which is now managed by his son James and will run alongside the new operation.
"I always had a bit of a conscience about frying stuff," says Chase of the Tyrrells potato chips business. "If you are growing and making food it is nice to do something with a clear conscience."
Chase has invested around £500,000 ($710,000) in kitting out a former potato shed with the air-popping production line, and has planted 20 acres of corn on his farm. A steam boiler with electric turbine in the distillery provides the facility with its own electricity.
Inspired by US trends
US trends played a key role in inspiring the launch, Chase told BakeryandSnacks. "Crisps are almost disappearing off the shelves in fine foods shops and are being replaced with popcorn," he added.
Healthy eating trends were also a big factor.
"People are now taking popcorn seriously," he said. "People eat it at lunch and eat it because they don’t want too many calories or too much saturated fat."
"Most of popcorn in the UK is still fried, and a lot of the ones that are air-popped use mass-made seasonings," added Chase. “Air popping makes a big difference – reducing calories and saturated fats in the packet, retaining the positive properties of the oil and protecting our environment.”
In his own words: Willy Chase's Fit Corn range
Cacao & Coconut: ‘Made using my two favorite superfoods: antioxidant rich cacao and cold pressed coconut oil’
Chase Smoky Bloody Mary: ‘Inspired by my perfect Bloody Mary: Chase smoked vodka, fresh ground horseradish, and freshly squeezed tomato juice’
Salted Honey: ‘My own honey made by the bees that pollinate the apple orchard, perfectly balanced with a touch of sea salt’
Willy's Cider Vinegar: ‘Made using the mother of all natural remedies (strands of proteins, enzymes and bacteria within Apple Cider Vinegar renowned for having beneficial effects to health)’
Nearly Naked: ‘Lightly sea salted with a sprinkling of the world’s finest sea salt from Anglesey.’ Salt supplied by Halen Môn
Goat's Cheese, Red Onion & Thyme: ‘My favorite flavor combination: goat's cheese, red onion and aromatic thyme’
"So I thought if you could have an air-popped one and we can make our own seasoning it will have its own identity."
The Fit Corn production line has been running for a week, and Chase is surprised at how clean it is compared with frying. "If it’s that clean to make it’s got to be that clean to eat," he said, adding that air-popping also avoided growing concerns over acrylamide.
And although, in Tyrrells, he created a brand now sold in supermarkets across the globe, Chase said he does not have mass-market ambitions for the new venture, and is targeting specialist grocers.
"I learned that in America - they told me not to worry about the big retailers and that the smaller guys would be your brand ambassadors, and would sell the product for you."
"The way we are making it, with home-made seasoning, is not geared to mass-market and I can’t compete with major popcorn brands that are produced in the same factories," he added. "The mass-market just cares about the cheapest - once a brand is running two-for-one offers it’s just turning money over, and I’m not interested in that."
Snacks bars may be next
But he is interested in expanding the Fit Corn concept - and has ambitions to launch a healthy snack bar next. And overseas expansion is also a possibility.
"The UK hasn't quite got the right climate for corn," he said, adding that the best corn areas included Texas, Argentina and France. "We have a vineyard in France and I would consider putting a line down there as they are patriotic about buying local produced food."
Sales of Tyrrells crisps rose 14.4% last year to £53.3m ($76m) - with Tyrrells popcorn sales up 34.8% to £8.6m ($12m) [IRI 52w/e 5 December 2015] - but Chase said he has no regrets about getting out of fried food.
"Things have their time – people now want to get fitter and want healthier foods."
And as for himself: "Life goes in chapters, I enjoyed making crisps and enjoyed distilling spirits, now I’m enjoying doing this."