I’ve never been much of a popsicle person. I crave creamy ice cream and I could never betray that love. Or so I thought. A culmination of Steel City Pops’ arrival, Rochell’s post on homemade recipes, and some good competitive spirit paved the way for my Amazon order of a Progressive International popsicle mold. Sorry soft serve, you’re sitting this one out for awhile.
On my road to becoming the next great popsicle master, I sat down with the experts at Dallas’ original frozen-treat-on-a-stick authority, Pop Star Handcrafted Popsicles. Nostalgia encompasses the heart and drive of this homegrown company. From John’s dream to recreate his favorite childhood treat to the incorporation of his VW Bus traveling storefront, he looks to invoke the community’s pastimes into each bite. John Doumas, the brain behind it all, worked in professional services and consulting for over 20 years before making the culinary transition with his wife Jen. The pair works to create intense flavors and memorable eating experiences, and with all this success, they now hint at future plans for the company. Here’s a glimpse at my time with them.
LB: Where does your inspiration for all your exotic flavors come from?
John: It usually goes back to my travels. From the beginning we never wanted to do just your ordinary cherry or grape. We wanted something more sophisticated and gourmet, but palettable for both adults and kids. One of our more unique flavors that is a city favorite is the Cucumber Mint. When I used to head to New York with my past work, the hotel I stayed at had a decanter of what I like to call “hangover water,” ice water with lemon and cucumber slices. So, I thought back to that and figured I could dial up the flavors to create something refreshing for people here.
A lot come from cocktails as well. That’s how we got our Green Apple Cardamom. Our friend Chad Brown is a local bartender that makes an apple martini, which Jen loves, and we took that idea to our pop molds.
Jen: I wouldn’t say I have a favorite because I love them all, but the Green Apple Cardamom is my favorite. I might fight a child for the Green Apple. I would win. Okay, so I’m a one-popsicle kind of girl and that’s my popsicle.
John: We try to do things with different spices that are accessible. Around fall we have more seasonal flavors. A lot of time we tend to focus more on organic dairy products because fruits aren’t as widely available. We are looking more at cider-based pops. Maybe an eggnog around Christmas time. We have a Pumpkin Spice coming soon. We spent a lot of time perfecting it and will probably roll it out early this year and the other pumpkin-centric items starting coming out.
LB: So why the transition in careers?
John: Convergence of turning 40 and wanting to learn to do something. My family has a background in food and food service. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a farmer and grocer and on my father’s side was a restaurant owner and hotel owner. I guess you could say it’s in my genes. But, most importantly being able to make something that I create for others is really important to me. After spending that much time in professional consulting services I just wanted to learn how to do something different and expand my knowledge base. At the same time, I have special dietary needs from Crohn’s disease. As a kid I really loved frozen treats. I would wake up and freeze sodas and juices, which continued through adulthood. I would eat them every day. There was a certain brand I loved to eat, but a bigger company bought them out. So, as a joke I told my wife I would make my own.
Jen: And I said “Oh okayyyy.” (laughs) Then several weeks later a star was born!
John: I made several trips across the country to others doing the same thing. Atlanta, California, Nashville, and Austin. Then after a few weeks equipment started coming in from across the world like South America and Mexico. I wanted to make them for myself, but at the same time, after spending time in Austin and seeing the food truck movement, it was kind of always in the back of my mind to do more. I have a friend who is one of the founders of White Rock Local Market and heard what we were doing. She told me come out and sell them, which I jumped at. The first time was July 2012 and we’ve been doing it ever since.
LB: Any troubleshooting along the way?
John: In the beginning we went through a lot of trial and error. We started out with the molds you would find on Amazon or at Target. Of course the biggest question was how to unmold them. We would put them in the freezer, which is nothing like how we produce them now. We used pliers. We received lots of bumps, bruises, cuts and ice burns. We would wrap a towel around our forearms to pull the sticks out. It was very disheartening if you messed it up because it would take 3 or 4 days to freeze things. That’s not how it is today. 120 minutes and you’re done with our specialized equipment. Our fruit popsicles are modeled after traditional Mexican paletas which are fruit bars. Lime is big, and I’m not sure if you have had the experience of juicing 300 or 400 at a time, but it’s not fun. I basically spilled all of it after spending hours working. I was not happy. Key Lime was the first pop we did.
LB: What are some of the rewarding aspects of your career change?
John: One thing we really enjoy is the relationship with local producers and farmers. Lots of our core ingredients come from local farms. We use Noble Coyote Coffee to make a cold brew coffee pop, which is like a Frappuccino on a stick.
Summer in Texas is great for berries, melon and all kinds of different fruits. We work a couple different farmers. A few are Larken Farms as well as Peachy Page Farm in Scurry, Texas, Pure Land Organic Farms, and one of the few organic dairy farms in Texas is County Line farms. We exclusively use their dairy for pops like Madagascar Vanilla, Chocolate Peppermint and Orange Dreamsicle.
Being able to use and make things from local sources is a big thing for us. We are involved in farmers markets for a reason and it’s great the relationships we get to build from that. After my time in a completely different industry it’s a really rewarding experience.
LB: What’s one of the more interesting things you learned along the way?
John: Each piece of fruit is different. We can’t reduplicate it because of each fruit’s sugar content. Everything is determined by its location, where it’s grown, the amount of rain it gets and the amount of sunshine. The sugar content of every single fruit, even from the same tree can be a little different. The more sugar content, the harder it is to freeze. Getting things consistent is really challenging, specifically with citrus like lime.
Jen: That’s one of the great things of it being handcrafted. He pays particularly attention because the fruit varies so much. He tastes everything. He is so meticulous and you know, sometimes it just doesn’t work, and we throw it out.
LB: Would you ever do a brick-and-mortar?
John: It was never our initial strategy. For us it was more about wholesale and putting them in places where people were more likely to buy them. But, with the introduction of Steel City, we have a few tricks up our sleeves.
LB: I know this is Texas, but what do you do during the colder months?
John: We know it’s a seasonal business, so we don’t really rely on people to come to us. During those cold months we don’t do outside, but more events indoors. Private parties, corporate functions, charity events, we are still pretty active. It gives a chance to catch our breath, but people are still getting together and celebrating over dessert. Fall gives us the opportunity to participate in charitable events. We’ve done Meat Fight for the past several years, which helped raise over $50,000 for the National MS Society. We participate in Chefs for Farmers and just received a spot at Chipotle’s Cultivate Festival, which is making its debut in Dallas.
LB: What tips would you give for people back home?
Jen: Don’t use pliers to extract! (laughs)
John: Get a tub or pan with cold water to help release the pops from the mold as opposed to warm water, which we did a lot of and most people usually do. It causes them to melt. Use high quality ingredients. Taste everything. Things should taste sweeter than what you might think because the freezing actually mutes the flavor a bit. I would highly encourage people at home to make a simple syrup so that everything blends together easier. That’s just one part water and one part sugar. It serves as a base that doesn’t force you to add extra sugar.