By Holly Beilin
On one of the first truly warm Sunday evenings of the year, Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward park began to see an influx of hundreds of mat-carrying yogis. As seven o’clock neared, they lined up the colorful rectangles in neat parallel lines on the ground, waiting in eager anticipation for a teacher to begin instructing the choreographed sequence of stretches through a loudspeaker so even those all the way in the back could hear.
This is King of Pops yoga, and it has become an Atlanta warm weather tradition — the weekly hour-long outdoor yoga class is easily accessible by walkers, cyclists, and drivers, and basic enough to allow those who don’t know their asanas from their savasanas to participate.
The night is fun. It’s incredibly popular — drone shots taken overhead show as many as 800 people simultaneously twisting into tree pose. Thanks to frozen treat company King of Pops, it’s free.
And, undeniably, it has absolutely nothing to do with popsicles.
“I just see it as this public good that we want to provide,” explains Steven Carse, King of Pops co-founder. “The point of this is not to stroke our ego but to create something we can provide for the community.”
Some yogis do cool off by purchasing popsicles after the event, providing KOP with a built-in weekly event to sell that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. But just as many walk away empty-handed but happy, and the CEO is just fine with that.
“It associates endorphins with our brand. We just want to give people activities they enjoy from our brand,” he says.
King of Pops is, in it of itself, an enjoyable brand. Carse started the business after being let go from his corporate job in 2009. His inspiration came from the yearly trip he took with his brothers to South America where they looked forward to feasting on paletas: ice pops made from fresh or overripe fruit sold off a pushcart.
“We fell in love with the product and talked about it for years and years. So after I got laid off, the time was right, and I decided to try this whole popsicle thing out with very, very few expectations,” says Carse.
With $7,000 in the bank and a self-imposed deadline of April 1, Carse went in search of the ingredients he needed to build the business. He found a space in a shared kitchen and a pushcart that looked like the ones that paleta vendors used.
Most of his money he saved for the pop-making machine, which cost about $6,000. He found a middleman in Miami on the web who said he had the machine he needed. Carse wired him the money and waited, but the machine didn't come.
“Apparently, his wife was sick, and he actually spent the money on hospital bills. That was a bummer, obviously, but I didn’t realize that until a few months before I was going to start,” says Carse. “I felt really bad for him, but I had to go and say, ‘I’m really sorry, but this is all I have for myself right now.’ Once I explained that he helped me purchase a used machine for less money, I went out there and got it, and six months later he gave me back the money.”
Pop crisis averted, Carse began producing frozen treats. By now he had a name, chosen from a long list that included “Fria” and “Frozen Man”.
And that iconic rainbow umbrella that adorns pushcarts around the city of Atlanta and now, across the south? It was bright, it was eye-catching — and it was the cheapest on the shelf.
“It was there that day, and we stuck with it,” says Carse. “Now, it has a very far reach in ways that we never could have imagined, both in how people see us, and how rainbows have a lot of associations we never expected. At least in Atlanta, now popsicles are lumped in together with all of those positive things.”
Their first day selling was at a festival at Serenbe, the iconic ‘wellness community’ outside of Atlanta. Carse says they sold out in three hours and were having a celebratory lunch and beer when they got a call from his brother Nick, who was working full-time as an attorney while he helped out with the popsicle business.
“My brother called from a street corner in the city he had set up at and told us he was out of pops. And I go, ‘That’s awesome!’ Well, it wasn’t that awesome — apparently, people came from Conyers, from far away, just for the pops. They were kind of upset.”
“So I didn’t finish my beer, got up, drove home, got back to work in the kitchen to turn out more pops. That story really epitomizes our first year — we were literally constantly making or selling pops.”
Carse, Nick, and a few friends would sell the pops wherever they could go. If they wanted to go to a music festival, they brought the pushcart. A warm day in the park? Pops could be sold.
“There was no other way to do it, as far as we knew, then just working all the time to make those pops,” says Carse. “We made it fun — my friends would come in after they worked out, when they finished up at the bars, they’d be in there helping us with bagging or with the machine. It was all we thought about in that first year.”
Without hiring a single outside employee, Carse and his crew ran through the first season at a breakneck pace. After a break for winter, they hired their first two employees; Nick eventually came on full-time.
The second year they expanded into Charleston and Asheville.
“Looking back, it was pretty naïve,” says Carse. “We had no processes, we had no real management. But we just said, something is working about this, let’s keep it going.”
King of Pops is now in seven cities across the south. They employ 50 full-time employees, 250 total. They’re still family-run and self-funded.
As the business has grown, so too has the Carse's operating strategy. They quickly realized that they sold 90 percent of their popsicles in half the year. To diversify, they started many other businesses. Tree Elves, a Christmas tree delivery service, boosts profits in December. They have a bar in Ponce City Market where they sell “poptails,” brightly colored drinks with a pop topping off the glass; Carse says they’re exploring several other locations for more bars.
Most of their businesses, however, focus on local food producers like themselves. In 2014 they bought a 68-acre farm, dubbed King of Crops, to grow their own produce for both popsicle production and to sell locally.
They also run a distribution business for small brands, much-loved southern names like Banner Butter, Honeysuckle Gelato, and Doux South Pickles.
“We realized that distribution companies really left a gap for small brands like ours,” says Carse. “We’re driving to these places anyway, so we’re better together and can bring more things with us. A lot of food brands come to us, and they don’t want to deal with a distributor because they’ve heard horror stories, or they aren’t big enough to hit the scale a distributor needs you to be at to do business with you.”
They do delivery, broker deals with stores, and provide advice for smaller brands who need help to break into larger store accounts.
Last year they also joined with Atlanta-based compost startup Compostwheels to start a King of Compost business out of their farm.
“For farms like our own, the collection of food waste is really important. A lot of people are composting, but they don’t really have anywhere to bring it. We’re composting in a way that will create very high-quality compost, and we’re passing that along to local farmers,” says Carse.
It’s a lot to balance, and Carse says they still have a hard time knowing where to allocate their time.
“Generally what happens when we start a new business is someone just puts on another hat and takes it on and does more work. In some ways, I think we’ve overdone that,” he reflects. “It’s really exciting to start a new business, just like it’s exciting to go to a new city, but the lesson, not that I would have done anything differently, but realizing that less can be more and more isn’t always better.”
Carse may feel overworked, but he’s adamant that KOP employees enjoy their slow time. The CEO institutes a company-wide paid month off from mid-January to mid-February called Surf Break.
Their customers benefit from the brand far beyond pops as well. The aforementioned yoga, which now is held in every King of Pops city, is one example. Another is ‘Pop Art,’ a monthly pop-up event where artists who don’t have a space to show their work can do so for free. They host a weekly run club, which Carse himself frequents, promising that every runner gets a pop after they sweat.
Amidst all they’ve got going on, Carse is setting a different kind of goal this year: slowing down.
“We want to grow, but we have to be really thoughtful not to overdo it to move too far away from our roots. It’s a balance,” he says. To that end, the brothers are hiring a ‘Chief Pop-erating Officer’ to manage the day-to-day of the business. Carse knows what he’s good at — coming up with ideas, breathing his company culture, integrating into the community — and what he’s not.
“A lot of our work has turned into running the business, where we’re probably both better at starting things,” he says. “I’m really excited to get someone in who knows how to run a business.”
They’re focusing on turning their cultural status toward their other markets. Atlanta is indeed the southern city where KOP’s rainbow umbrellas are just as recognizable — sometimes seemingly synonymous — with the city skyline. Carse wants to tackle each city as an individual entity, figuring out how popsicles fit into the fabric of each one.
“Atlanta is our most successful city by far, and I think that’s a direct correlation to how we have gotten involved in the community. It’s been tough to replicate across the board what we have in Atlanta. We’re trying to replicate this nebulous attitude across seven cities, many of which I don’t particularly know well,” he shares.
“I do think we’re going to change that, and as we recognize and convey that it’s more and more enriching, not just for profit, but for our community, it will make a difference in both how our brand is perceived and how successful we are.”
Carse also will have to guide his brand and team through a changing Atlanta as demographics shift and the city grows in both economic might and sheer size.
“Atlanta will always change — at one point everyone was moving out, now they’re all moving back in. There’s a ton of issues — gentrification is a huge issue, affordability, upward mobility — all these things that as thoughtful businesses and leaders in the city we can really affect.”
But no matter what side of Atlanta someone lives on, or how new they are to the city, what they do or where they work, Carse wants one thing — for them to try a pop. On their eighth anniversary this March, they gave away free treats all across the city to celebrate.
“When you think about a city, you don’t think about people. You think about this big conglomerate with numbers, thousands of people, but they’re actually just individuals. I think the great part about being in Atlanta as it’s growing is that most people are going to try to ask around to say, what’s an Atlanta thing?”
“From what we’ve done here, I think we’ll get brought up.”