Brownstein: No monkey business for award-winning Montreal popcorn-makers

Many had doubts nine years ago when the Zeppilli brothers stuck their necks out and created Bad Monkey Popcorn. They are doubting no longer.

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It was about 10 years ago at my local Metro. As was the case then and often today, purveyors of local products would converge Saturday mornings on the supermarket aisles to have customers sample their cheeses, jams, jellies, pâtés, sausages and sushi.

And then there was Fabio Zeppilli, who stuck out amid this crowd. A little shy, he was clearly a novice in the fine art of the shill.

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No easy sale, either, as Zeppilli was entering the exalted realm of Orville Redenbacher, pushing a homemade popped popcorn called Bad Monkey.

Zeppilli told those congregated around him how he and his three brothers threw all their funds into crafting their favourite snack while offering tastings of the Bad Monkey’s two flavours, butter and caramel.

He then told this curious mind that his single mom was not exactly enthralled by his decision to go into the popcorn biz.

Understandable. It turns out that Zeppilli had earned advanced degrees in law and science and was an up-and-coming intellectual property lawyer, and that his mother and three other brothers helped pay for his education.

But after a little more than a year of practising law, he decided to chuck the barrister trade in the hopes of making it on the snack front. Many more people than just his mystified mother had their doubts.

Yet their mom was unknowingly responsible for brothers Fabio, Joey, Luciano and Mateo coming up with the Bad Monkey moniker.

“As kids, our mom would call us her bad little monkeys,” Fabio says. “Little could she have realized then what we would do with that name.”

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Employees pack bags of Bad Monkey Popcorn in Anjou on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.
Employees pack bags of Bad Monkey Popcorn in Anjou on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Flash forward 10 years: the bros are no longer operating out of their mother’s 300-square-foot kitchen but rather in a 30,000-plus-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility in Anjou, where they are turning out 200,000 pounds of popcorn a month in 22 different varieties, including their latest, a vegan, bacon-flavoured combo.

More to the point and their mom’s delight, they are making their mark with “multimillions” in sales not only in the Canadian retail trade but are soon to hit the American heartland with expectations of sales to go “many millions more,” says Fabio, 40, Bad Monkey’s vice-president of Canadian and U.S. sales.

Brother Joey, 38, Bad Monkey’s marketing vice-president, is a graduate of Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, which must have also pleased his mom no end when he decided to quit the finance game for kernels.

“She’s happier now because business is growing here and with deals in place in the U.S. with many retailers. We’re also in talks with several NBA and NHL teams to become their official popcorn. The sky is the limit for us,” Joey enthuses.

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Younger brothers Luciano and Matteo, both chefs, helped create the flavours.

The brothers attribute their new-found success to winning two awards for Top Grocery Innovation in sustainability snacks for Canada. And they attribute those awards to a recent creation.

We invented the world’s first pre-popped bag of popcorn that is compostable and heatable,” Joey claims in delivering the aforementioned tongue-twister. “It heats up your product — without burning the bag — in 30 seconds. It’s barbecue, oven and microwave safe. Heat n’ Eat! This is a popcorn game-changer.”

So what led to this game-changer?

“A year and a half ago, we said to ourselves: ‘OK, we’re doing good, but how can we innovate?’ ” Joey explains. “We said the best popcorn comes when it’s hot and crunchy like at the movies. We asked how we could emulate that but at home. So we got together with our packaging supplier who had the patent on packaging that enabled us to come up with something 100 per cent compostable. But the best part is that it’s also heatable. So you could eat our popcorn as is, but if you wanted to enjoy that movie experience, this was the answer.”

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Bad Monkey Popcorn has created a heatable and compostable bag.
Bad Monkey Popcorn has created a heatable and compostable bag. The company also gives its unpopped kernels to Quebec pig farmers. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Bad Monkey has also been a boon to Quebec pig farmers, Joey points out.

Say what?

“We have a $50,000 machine that removes all the unpopped corn, so that our bags are full without unpopped corn getting stuck in your teeth. We then give all the unpopped corn for free to the pig farmers, and it saves us lots of waste.”

Joey does concede that the future didn’t look that bright in 2016 when they landed a spot on the CBC-TV series Dragon’s Den but had to walk away from an investment deal from one of the show’s investors that wasn’t financially favourable to them. Nor were their forays to various banks for help.

Fortunately, however, the brothers were able to land an investment deal with a private equity firm a few years later. And they haven’t looked back since.

“It’s been quite the journey,” Fabio says. “The innovation prizes have really helped us of late, certainly in terms of attracting attention in the U.S. We’re like a rocket ship on the deck with all systems ready to go and about to launch.

“What’s interesting is that we’re leading the charge in innovation in Canada. This is a David versus Goliath story.”

Popcorn division, that is.

“Nobody is doing compostable like us, including the popcorn big boys,” Fabio says. “Our real goal is to inspire others with these kinds of dreams, because you just never know what could happen. They could come through like ours did.”

The brothers don’t have innovation plans for other snacks, like potato chips.

“Popcorn is taking over, because it’s much healthier with no trans fats or cholesterol. Chips, you fry; popcorn you cook,” Joey pipes in. “We have a great popcorn saying: Once it touches your lips, you don’t go back to chips.”

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