Some innovations change the world; some might just change your day. When Steven Carse got laid off from his job as an insurance analyst at recession-doomed AIG, he came up with a plan that would offer his Atlanta community a little of both: He started King of Pops, an ecologically responsible gourmet popsicle company now locally famous for its happy little carts with rainbow umbrellas.
“My oldest brother is an anthropologist,” explains Carse of the company’s origins, “and his field work was in Central America. We would go down there on these family trips and eat paletas, and talk about how great it would be to bring them back to the United States. At first it was like, ‘Yeah, that would be cool to do,’ and then when I lost my job, it was like, ‘Well, there’s no reason not to do it.’” Carse spent three rounds of AIG layoffs dreaming up flavors, and in 2009, when the axe finally fell on him, he moved onto his brother’s couch and launched himself full-time into the popsicle business.
Unable to get a storefront open on the timeline he’d planned, he decided to purchase a cart and set up on a friendly corner in the nearby Poncey-Highland neighborhood. He soon attracted quite a bit of attention from national news outlets like CNN and Fox News–for something other than his product. “I got laid off from a huge company, and that kind of made it a story that people could run with,” Carse says. “There’s no way if I had just opened a popsicle business that I would have gotten national coverage, but it was a relatively feel-good story, something that people could relate to. I was really lucky.”
When he launched, he was selling about 30 pops a day; today, King of Pops has more than 150 seasonal varieties listed on their website, can accommodate orders in the thousands for special events, and popped up at last year’s Bonnaroo. (“My girlfriend had 5,000 little babies that she had to keep frozen in 100-degree weather,” Carse says. “I think it was not fun for her.”) Their wholesale business–which includes a recent deal with Whole Foods–even inspired another Carse brother, Nick, to quit his job as a lawyer and join the team. “As long as we can keep making a really good product and bringing it to people in a really fun way, we’re open to growing,” says Carse. “I’m afraid of certain things that you lose when you grow, especially when you grow too fast. So I’m just trying to be really, really conscious of growing the right way.”
One of the ways he’s aiming to do the right thing is through the freshness of his produce: Carse sources locally as much as possible, often from vendors he meets while selling at farmer’s markets. “People say ‘Local is the new black,’ which I think is kind of funny, but it’s definitely a trend I like,” Carse says. “When I can get something from someone I can see, I enjoy it.” His big future goal is to purchase or at least sponsor a nearby farm, where King of Pops could grow their own ingredients year-round. “People get excited that we make the popsicles,” he says, “so if we could tell people they can come out to our farm and check that out, too, that would be very cool.”
And despite their growth over the past three years, King of Pops remains an almost waste-free company, rarely throwing away more than a single bag of trash in a week. “We don’t subscribe to a trash service, so everything that gets thrown away is taken back to my apartment complex and thrown in the dumpster,” Carse says. Cardboard is recycled; fruit waste goes to compost. Even the plastic wrappers in which the popsicles are sold are made from compostable corn-based materials. “I’m trying to think of what is filling up our single trash bag,” Carse laughs. “I can’t really think of what it is.”
By offering a delicious, ever-evolving product in an unexpected setting, King of Pops has officially captured the sweet tooth of Atlanta, and it’s hard to visit town these days without stumbling across them. “Street food activates streets and makes them more alive,” Carse says. “By having a cart instead of a store, I think it just engages people more to not only talk to the person selling, but also to the other people that are buying around them. Maybe one of them is a free-world hippie, and one is a 60-year-old bringing their grandchildren, and they’re enjoying a popsicle and they talk to each other. That’s an experience.” And at the heart of his success is a philosophy that serves as good advice for nearly any business, food-related or not: “We experiment, and give people a chance to like something,” Carse says. “It’s important to put it out there for people to try–not necessarily thinking that you’re the best at always knowing what tastes the best.”
This piece is part of Change Generation, our series on young, change-making entrepreneurs. Read the rest here.