Feature: Pop Shop

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What started out as a one-man, ice-pop stand has sprouted multiple locations and supports farmers across Alabama, but its home base is still the ‘coolest’ spot in Gadsden for enjoying a fresh, tasty dessert.

story and photos by ELIZABETH MANNING

The mission of Gadsden , Ala., dessert favorite Frios Gourmet Pops is to build community – because community is the reason Frios is around, says founder and owner Andy Harp.

What better community than Harp’s childhood home to start his own small business? Out of high school, Harp says he wanted to go to culinary school. He had grown up cooking with his mom.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]“I let a lot of folks talk me out of that – so I majored in chemistry in college instead,” Harp says.

He also picked up public relations for a double major. After college, though, the Internet was a new point of interest. He learned how to handle the new technology, and for 18 years following, he worked in IT. That path didn’t make him happy, however “I sat down and wrote out the things I loved and the things I was doing,” Harp says. “While IT was a good job, it wasn’t what I loved. I loved chemistry, networking and cooking.

“I sat down and wrote out the things I loved and the things I was doing,” Harp says. “While IT was a good job, it wasn’t what I loved. I loved chemistry, networking and cooking.”

And that’s how Frios Gourmet Pops began. Harp says he began experimenting after work with recipes and different combinations of flavors. One day, he told his wife he thought he would quit his job and try a new business venture.

You have to be married to a special person to tell her you want to quit your cushy, high-paying job and start a Popsicle shop, and her support you and believe in you wholeheartedly,” Harp says. “I was able to combine all the things I love: cooking, chemistry, public relations and working with a small-town community.”

Frios started as a small commissary in the back of Tony’s Bar-B-Q in downtown Gadsden in March of 2012.

“We made maybe 40 pops a day and rolled our little cart out on Broad Street,” Harp says. “I think at first, the word spread like, ‘Can you believe this guy quit his job and started a Popsicle stand?’”

The talk helped them grow, though, and quickly.

So much that Harp had to start looking at a different business model. Originally, he wasn’t planning on expanding.

“I just wanted to do something I loved, and if I could make a few dollars doing it, then great,” Harp says. “So I rolled my cart out – I never thought it would grow bigger than that.”

After opening the storefront in Gadsden in 2012, Harp says he want-ed to stay heavily involved in the production side of the business so he could focus on new flavors, customer service and overall company growth. He looked to distributors in other towns and communities to run the businesses there.

Frios Gourmet Pops can now be found in Birmingham, Fairhope, Guntersville and Gulf Shores in Alabama and in Destin, Fla.

Harp says his biggest goal was to find distributors who were as passionate about the business as he is. Kari Benson is one such person. A pharmacist in Fairhope, Benson is also a distributor for Frios in the South Alabama area. Benson says she was looking for a way to support local business.

“I loved the product and the business model, and it was a great way to support the local farmers in our area,” Benson says.

All of the frozen pops are currently produced in the Gadsden Frios location, a 3,500-square-foot facility. While the space is adequate now, Harp says he is considering a space double the size. “This space kind of chose us,” Harp says of the current location. “It had everything we need and it was important to us to join the downtown revitalization efforts on Broad Street,” Harp says. “However, we will be needing more space soon.”

Frios pops are either fruit-based or cream-based and are sweetened with organic cane sugar, agave or locally produced honey. There are also several no-sugar-added options. Popular flavors include chocolate, banana pud-ding, pink lemonade, strawberry, watermelon, blood orange, blackberry, lemon icebox and muscadine.

Harp says the cane sugar Frios uses is not processed and has a better taste than refined sugar. “We wanted to have a product that was both healthy and portion-controlled, but still enjoyable,” he says.

A staff of 13 to 20 people is hard at work daily producing the pops. In peak season, Harp says more than 10,000 pops are produced dai-ly. In the off-season, 5,000 to 6,000 pops are produced each day. Two dairies supply Frios: Wright Dairy in Alexandria, Ala., and Working Cows Dairy in Slocomb, Ala.

The process from start to finish is a quick one, but it’s not completed without a lot of hard work. A farm will deliver hundreds of pounds of produce. For example, a fruit farm will deliver 100 gallons of strawberries. To start, employees at Frios begin washing and hulling all of the strawberries. Then, the fruit is blended and pureed down and a bit of sugar and citrus are added to heighten flavor.

Once the pops are blended, they are put into stainless-steel molds. They are then dropped into freezers at -22 degrees Fahrenheit, and they freeze in 18-22 minutes.

All of the fruit is prepped, typically, the night before. It takes about 5 to 10 minutes to get everything mixed, another 5 to 10 minutes to get everything molded, another 10 minutes to unmold it and another 10 minutes to bag and box the pops. This routine enables Frios to make up to 12,000 pops a day.

“That schedule has definitely been honed down after quite a bit of trial and error,” Harp says. “Our staff works tirelessly to hand-assemble these pops.”

In fact, the entire process is by hand: hand assembled, hand stirred and hand poured. Fri-os currently has about 80 flavors that are made throughout the year and 15 to 20 that are special-event-only. The pops shop even has Girl Scout-cookie-flavored pops, made only dur-ing Girl Scout cookie season. Harp’s personal favorites are the fresh peach and the tiramisu. Pops can be bought singly or by the pack. All of the flavors are custom-made through a process of trial and error.

“Even in the off-season, we sell enough pops to sustain us,” Harp says. “We use that down-time to grow our list of flavors, do maintenance on our equipment and brainstorm for ways of making the business better.”

Many of the distributors in other cities have contacts with local suppliers in their respective towns. Frios places great emphasis on sourcing ingredients locally. Before ever doing business with farmers, Harp does a farm visit to look at the produce and the farmer’s methods of growing it.

“We get the question a lot, ‘How can you say it’s a local product when all of the pops are made in Gadsden?’” Harp says. “We source the ingredients from farmers and mom-and-pop businesses in the area that the shop is located. Our utmost goal is to support small and local businesses as much as we can.”

Produce and other ingredients are picked up from locations across the state and then trans-ported to the Gadsden location to make the frozen pops. Harp says local ingredients are used whenever possible.

In Harp’s eyes, a small, supportive community built Frios, so it’s only natural that Frios should do its part to give back.

He says by taking the cart out to community events, Frios employees can interact more with customers. Frios takes carts to football games and other athletic events, as well as to schools during school days to help with fundraising activities. Frios partners with students to sell the pops as snacks to their classmates.

“Typically they have a very high participation rate with it, and it’s easy for school administration – we show up, sell pops and at the end of the day, the school gets a check,” Harp says.

Frios primarily works with schools, but also collaborates with other organizations to help with fundraising activities.

“We have literally been built and sustained by local support. We kid that we can’t source pineapples from local farmers, but we work with a small-business supplier for those kind of ingredients,” Harp says.

The pops shop that began with a single cart has grown into a multi-location business. Now, all of the distributors have carts and food trucks in addition to storefronts.

“We use social media to spread the word about different locations of our carts and events we are involved in,” Harp says. “Our marketing has very much been a grassroots, viral success.”

While the work is hard and constant, Harp says it’s fun and rewarding work, and beats a desk job any day. Up next, Frios is opening two locations in Mississippi. Harp says they have plans to open stores in Tennessee in the near future, too.

“We want to do a controlled growth, though,” Harp says. “Quality is the bottom line, after all.”

Frios Gourmet Pops in Gadsden is at 414 Broad Street. The shop is open Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., and Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. For more information, see friospops.com or call 256-459-4946.[/s2If]