- By Thomas Weaver
What would you do if a local farmer called up offering seven hundred pounds of quite ripe apriums? Whatever those are? Just six months into their new business venture, Timothy Stewart ’09 and his business partners in Pop Nation took on the challenge, quickly creating a new and exotic flavor of the popsicles they’re becoming known for around the San Francisco Bay area. The hybrid fruit (75 percent apricot and 25 percent plum—the opposite ratio of the better known pluot) became a spicy aprium pop with organic citrus, unrefined organic cane sugar, fresh and dried chilies.
Though they only rolled out a little more than eighteen months ago, selling gourmet popsicles (all vegan and gluten-free) from food carts around the city, Stewart, along with his sister and two friends, have watched their vision expand wildly, hip grownup taste meeting nostalgia on a stick. Their fleet of carts has doubled, they’ve generated buzz in the San Francisco Chronicle and Huffington Post and, in March, successfully met a $50,000 Kickstarter goal to fund their own commercial kitchen, having already outgrown their current shared space.
Called to the kitchen
As he steps outside to talk on a sunny day—Stewart has been prepping fruit for kiwi, lime, and ginger pops—he admits this would have been beyond his imagination as an anthropology major at UVM. “I had a ton of influential professors who were amazing and shaped my ideas and my views,” he says, “but I honestly had no idea what I would do with my degree.”
He was obsessed about working with food, however, a passion for which he credits his mother and the time he spent in the kitchen with her. Stewart describes his determination during his junior year to learn about cheesemaking at Willow Hill Farm.
“I asked if they would take me on and they said, ‘no, no way,’ and I think for the next two weeks I just started showing up there, interrupted them doing their work and said, ‘If you teach me I’ll work for free,’” he recalls. The proprietors, who include alumna Willow Smart ’92, relented and he worked with them, for pay, for more than two years.
Then came that age-old urge to hit the road, head for San Francisco. Stewart says he was alone, driving across Texas when he got a call from his sister looking for a fourth partner in popsicles. There’s a lot of time and space to think on those roads and by Las Vegas, he recalls, he knew it was an opportunity to work in food, start his own business, work for himself—he called to say, “I’m in.”
Hot and cold
Now the carts aren’t just on street corners or farmers markets. Much of their business is catering, which Stewart runs, along with sales and client acquisition. (When VQ caught up with Stewart he was filling in for one of his partners.)
Young tech companies have them wheel up with pops as a treat for their employees and they’re booked for several summer weddings. One May weekend they catered events at Pottery Barn’s corporate headquarters and a large ten-year anniversary party for LinkedIn. “Pops always put a smile on faces,” Stewart says.
Strawberry lemonade and sea-salted dark chocolate remain the best sellers (dairy-free, they’ve discovered a secret to chocolate pops with an unexpectedly creamy texture say reviewers—a result of a lot of testing and time back at the drawing board, thanks to excruciatingly honest friends).
Yet they aim hard to expand popsicle-buyers horizons—kaffir lime and avocado, blackberry mojito, hibiscus mint with grapes, and lemon lavender cake are just a small sampling of their special offerings. A popular pop is Bangkok Night Market—coconut milk steeped with lemongrass, ginger, turmeric and other exotic spices. The name creates a conversation with customers, an engagement Stewart says they cherish.
“These guys are so awesome,” writes one Oakland Yelp user, advising, “You should ask them what the craziest flavor they have is, and then buy it and eat it. And then get another one.”
Pop Nation’s growth strategy moving forward is first to get small branded glass-top freezers into retail stores and eventually to move off the streets and into grocery stores nationwide.
But for now, some days at least, Stewart is still cutting up kiwi. How many popsicles does he eat a day? Yeah, we really want to know. “Way too many. I consider it R & D so I justify it in that sense,” he laughs. “I’m not going to put a product out there on the marketplace that I haven’t tasted myself time and time again.”
Lee Ann Cox