Everyone loves a pop, especially 30-year-old Davis resident Sarah Stewart.
Last year, Stewart started a new popsicle food cart business with three other partners, including her brother, turning fresh, local ingredients into frozen, gourmet desserts.
With more than 70 vegan and gluten-free flavors—from the exotic Bangkok Night Market to Dark Chocolate Sea Salt—Pop Nation is redefining the beloved summertime treat.
How did you and your friends end up starting Pop Nation?
I was working a desk job in San Francisco, and (husband and wife) Annie and Mark McGinty had a seasonal Christmas light business in San Francisco. I was ready for a change and wanted to work in the food industry, while those two were looking for a summer business.
We were at a mutual friend’s birthday party, and we both made the same announcement at the same time – that we wanted to start a food cart.
We needed a fourth partner, and it was fortunate my brother Tim Stewart, was moving across the country that week from Vermont, where he’d been an artisanal cheese maker. He had a house and no job, his car was full of his possessions and he was driving through Texas when we called him.
Why did you want to try your hand in the food industry?
My brother and I haven’t had any formal training, but we grew up in a house where food was always the focus. My mom is a fantastic cook, and every family gathering and get together is always about what we’re going to cook together. My mom and I call each other three months in advance to plan menus.
It’s an easy product. When we are asked at the last minute to do a catering job, the prep is already done.
The other thing is, as we started testing recipes, we found that you can really turn any flavor combination into a popsicle, which is so fun because all of a sudden it opens up all these possibilities. Before we went vegan and gluten-free, we were testing absolutely everything.
When I’m out reading a menu, or reading a food magazine or blog, I can’t help thinking that would be a good popsicle.
What is your role in Pop Nation?
Since I live in Davis, I do all the sourcing, which is great because there are so many farms to work with. The best part of my job is going out and meeting the farmers. We work a lot with Eat Well Farms in Dixon – we get almost all our strawberries from him. If his crew is too busy, and we have a huge order, he lets us go out there and pick them ourselves. It’s totally fun.
And since I’m in charge of buying all the ingredients, I also have to make sure we have recipes for what’s available at the time. In April, we got 480 pounds of apriums, which are an apricot and plum hybrid. We didn’t have a recipe, but the farmers said the flavor was so good and they were so ripe, we couldn’t pass them up. So we got them.
I frantically tested recipes all afternoon and night, and the next day we made our Aprium Chili popsicle, which has cayenne pepper, and ground chilies with a little bit of citrus. It’s really good.
What is the most popular flavor? What’s your personal favorite?
We have over 70 flavors, but at any given time we probably have between 10 and 30 in our cold storage warehouse.
In the beginning, I was hoping some of the really exotic flavors would be the most popular, but one of the most popular ones is Strawberry Lemonade, which is not as adventurous, but very delicious. We can’t make enough of our Dark Chocolate Sea Salt. There are a lot of chocolate addicts out there who love that one.
It also depends on where we’re selling and who’s in the crowd. At the Good: Street Food & Design Market in Sacramento, people had very adventurous palates. The flavors that sold out first were Beet Carrot and Bangkok Night Market, which is basically a Thai coconut popsicle with lemongrass and all sorts of spices like Thai chili. There’s a little bit of a kick and the color is just a beautiful, almost neon yellow from the turmeric.
To be honest, my favorite changes. Right now, my favorite is probably a tie between the Beet Carrot and the Spicy Plum Apricot.
All four of us have to love a flavor before we start selling it. We do a lot of taste testing.
Do you recruit friends and neighbors to help you taste test?
Yes, we’re very popular. It’s fun because everybody loves taste testing. It’s a fun experiment. I have a lot of grad student friends who think very methodically and scientifically. They like to talk about what we can tweak, and the chemical make-up of the popsicle, how to make the ice crystals smaller so the pop is a little bit smoother. I get a lot of tips. There’s a lot more science behind popsicles that I ever thought.
Pop Nation popsicles are available at the Cloverleaf Farm Stand off the I-80 Kidwell exit just west of Davis. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays June through November.
Other Pop Nation retailers include Serendipity in San Carlos and Rock Candy in San Francisco.
Pop Nation carts are available for private catering events.
For more information about Pop Nation, or find out where their carts will be, go to www.thepopnation.com.