The Popcorn Magnate

Read time: 3 minutes

Andy Friedman always dreamed of owning his own business. Now he is the Kernel King with SkinnyPop, one of the nation’s fastest growing snack food brands.

As co-founder of SkinnyPop, Andy Friedman, ’91, has fueled one of the nation’s fastest-growing snack food companies and propelled the 5-year-old brand’s ascent through the $1 billion ready-to-eat popcorn category. But on Aug. 5, his entrepreneurial adventure hit a new zenith with an initial public offering (IPO) that raised $270 million and, in turn, gave him the “highlight of his professional career”—ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

“I never thought SkinnyPop would become what it’s turned into,” Friedman said. “People joke that we’re an overnight success, but this has been more than eight years of hard work.”

Running a popcorn empire wasn’t exactly the future Friedman envisioned during his childhood in suburban Detroit, the son of two Michigan alumni—Arthur, ’60, MBA’61, and Brenda, ’64.

Friedman, in fact, earned his entrepreneurial stripes in Ann Arbor, where he teamed with fellow undergraduate Brad Keywell, ’91, JD’93, now a venture capitalist, to launch True Blue Promotions. Capitalizing on the Wolverines’ 1989 Rose Bowl victory and the men’s basketball title, True Blue commissioned original artwork celebrating the championships and then surrounded the poster-sized art with ads from local businesses. Later, the marketing upstart published a student’s guide to Ann Arbor.

Despite those early entrepreneurial successes, he followed a rather traditional post-graduation path: a Morgan Stanley analyst role, a University of Pennsylvania MBA, and a real estate stint in Chicago with Jones Lang LaSalle. Friedman, however, felt unfulfilled.

In 2007, he met serial entrepreneur Pam Netzky and the pair teamed with Mike and Jeff Eiserman to launch Wells Street Popcorn. Designed to rival Garrett Popcorn, a Chicago icon, Wells Street offered its indulgent treats at three Chicago-area storefronts and became the exclusive popcorn served at Chicago’s Broadway-caliber theaters.

“We had built a nice, profitable business,” Friedman said. “But we were running on a treadmill against some significant headwinds.” So Friedman and Netzky began experimenting with a popcorn alternative, envisioning a packaged product for mass retail. They experimented with better kernels, seeds, and oils, soon landing on a formula that eschewed allergens, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, gluten, and genetically modified organisms.

“SkinnyPop was the answer to so many voids people were unable to fill,” Friedman said. With one popper and a hand sealer, Friedman and Netzky hand-produced their first 1,000 bags in the summer of 2010. Friedman traveled to one Chicago-based specialty grocer, while Netzky hit another. Both stores called within 24 hours for more.

“That was our first clue we had something, but we still had no idea what was ahead of us,” Friedman said. By the end of 2010, SkinnyPop was in nearly 100 grocery stores, with Friedman, Netzky, and one part-time employee assembling 600 bags each day from Wells Street’s back room.

“My wife had married an investment banker making good money and wearing suits, but now I was coming home every night reeking of popcorn,” Friedman said.

In 2011, Friedman and Netzky secured outside manufacturing, scored distribution deals, and divested of Wells Street Popcorn to devote their attention to SkinnyPop.

“Suddenly, the wind began hitting our backs,” Friedman said. In 2013, SkinnyPop took on a partner who delivered a professional sales force. The company introduced new sizes and flavors. By 2014, SkinnyPop was in more than 50,000 stores across North America.

“For the first time, we didn’t have to do every single thing ourselves,” Friedman said. “We actually had operating leverage and realized how big we could be.” In August 2014, Friedman and Netzky inked a deal with Boston-based private equity firm TA Associates to further accelerate growth.

Over the next year, SkinnyPop formed a new parent company, Amplify Snack Brands. They also acquired an upstart tortilla chip company called Paqui. With its IPO now complete, Friedman says the plan is to develop and acquire like-minded brands and build a robust, global snack food platform.

Said Friedman: “To see SkinnyPop’s success from the germ of an idea with two people and the resonance it’s had with consumers is just remarkable.”

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