Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Brothers Nick and Steven Carse, originally from Snellville, started King of Pops in 2010.
Where to buy
King of Pops popsicles are sold in Atlanta from push carts and can also be found at various festivals and events, including the Stone Mountain Blue Grassroots Music and Arts Festival March 23-24. Later this year they will also be available at the Snellville Farmers Market.
In Gwinnett, they can be purchased at the following stores:
• Duluth Whole Foods
• Niko’s Wine Corner in Snellville
More info: Go to kingofpops.net
ATLANTA -- Flash back to a few days after Thanksgiving, the inner chambers of the King of Pops headquarters hum with deadline-driven activity, despite a nip in the air. The space recalls the warehouse where Rocky boxed hanging meat. Workers in a big white kitchen mold and stack the business' cash cow -- fresh, healthy, locally sourced popsicles. From a stereo, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones boom. The air is decidedly sweet.
The owners are two laidback brothers from Snellville -- one a former prosecutor, the other a corporate data cruncher. Together they have revolutionized Atlanta's frozen treat business and helped spearhead the city's food truck movement.
For Steven and Nick Carse, home base for their heralded popsicle brand is a circa-1920 industrial complex in the Inman Park neighborhood, tucked among salons, a taqueria and chocolatier. Like most employees, Nick, the tall and affable attorney, dons a white apron over his Atlanta Hawks T-shirt. A vintage Braves hat clamps his surfer-dude blonde hair. The elder brother at age 32, he ponders the mindboggling responsibility -- 12-hour days are common, as are seven-day work weeks -- inherent in an upstart business.
"This (past) year, March through October, I think I might have had one weekend off," Nick says, literally yawning. "I mean, it's fun. It's challenging."
The path to success hasn't been without unforeseen speed bumps, which have included a costly burglary and strong-arm robbery. But the Carse brothers' commitment is paying dividends, financial and otherwise. Last year, Georgia Trend Magazine named Steven, the 28-year-old face of the brand, to the state's top 40 entrepreneurs under age 40 list, calling the business a "bona fide sensation." King of Pops landed at No. 5 on Southern Living's list of the best food trucks in the South.
What began in 2010 with a cramped kitchen and single pushcart has morphed into a multifaceted operation across four states. Steven tallied receipts of roughly $300,000 in popsicle sales in metro Atlanta alone last year — at $2.50 apiece, that's 120,000 handmade popsicles. More than 20 retailers are carrying the brand, including national behemoths Whole Foods and Kroger. Along with 20 pushcarts, the business operates two customized ice-cream trucks and a fleet of delivery vehicles for its catering business. It employs more than 20 people in peak season, and the kitchen/warehouse is an expanding 2,400 square feet with two walk-in freezers.
Outside Atlanta, King of Pops has branches in Athens and Charleston, with others launching in Richmond and Charlotte next year, each run by friends of the Carse brothers who must first pass a pretty-cool-person litmus test.
Not bad for an idea hatched over tequila on a beach somewhere between Panama and Mexico.
"It's pretty wild how fast it took off," says Andy McCarthy, 30, a Parkview grad and former industrial equipment salesman. He runs the Charleston operation, where he goes by "Beach King."
Says McCarthy: "I don't think anyone expected this."
The hustle started early.
Sons of a traveling fresh-meat salesman and dental hygienist, the Carse brothers grew up in a four-bedroom home across the street from Shiloh High School. They built forts in the woods and fiddled with pond creatures and considered trips to Falcons games in Atlanta grand adventures. Their father, Jim Carse, recalls his sons buying candy and selling it for profit at the neighborhood pool.
"They always had a lot of entrepreneurships," he says. "It was in them."
Lessons from youth inform the brothers today. Their mother had stressed the attributes of eating fresh fruit, which Nick remembers incorporating into juice-and-tray popsicles at home. They were given allowances of $120 per month, which seemed like a tremendous sum. But their mother mandated that they budget and pay for everything from school lunches to haircuts. To cut costs, Steven bought clippers one month for $20 and shaved his head for the rest of high school.
At Shiloh, Jeff Hall remembers Steven distinguishing himself in terms of smarts, leadership, manners and organization. Hall still thinks of Steven, who was under his tutelage for four years on the cross country team, as the little brother he never had.
"As a former businessperson myself, I know you have to be organized, and he stood out in those fields," says Hall, now principal at Maxwell High School of Technology in Lawrenceville. "I could always count on him for leadership."
The brothers chose disparate paths in college, but both chose the University of Georgia. Nick earned a degree in information systems, and later a law degree from Georgia State. When the popsicle business launched, Nick was a prosecutor with the Gwinnett County Solicitors Office, locking up low-level drug dealers, drunk drivers and spouse beaters.
Steven studied journalism and worked for a stint covering high school sports on a measly salary in small-town Idaho, surrounded by world-class skiing he couldn't afford. He loved the work, but homesickness took hold. A call from his brother about an opening at insurance giant AIG in Alpharetta brought Steven back to Georgia.
But nothing about a single-faceted cubicle existence felt like home for Steven. A data analyst, he pooled information about car, motorcycle and RV crashes to identify groups deserving of rate hikes. As the Great Recession bit, the company laid Steven off -- a setback then, but ultimately a blessing in disguise.
Jobless, Steven harkened back to a summer 2006 trip he had taken with Nick to visit their older brother, Ashley, an anthropologist, in Central America. On a two-month backpacking expedition between Panama City and Acapulco, the brothers fell for handmade Mexican paleta -- frozen fruit on a stick -- and dreamed aloud while lounging on the beach about introducing it to American consumers. The talks continued for years, and a business name was born.
"When (Steven) got laid off," Nick says, "it was the final impetus to do it."
The popsicle empire began with a mysterious mural on the wall of a laundromat in the hip Poncey-Highland neighborhood.
In bold, bright letters, it announced the King of Pops brand and featured a huge, glorified popsicle adorned with a crown. Steven and an old artist pal had designed and painted the mural. But with no press release, no advertisements, it became an enigma, which was the plan. The mural whipped up buzz in the surrounding neighborhoods and foodie blogosphere: This huge popsicle -- what is the meaning?
Meanwhile, the Carse brothers test-ran manufacturing processes at a small kitchen beside a coffee shop. They devised flavors and test-marketed them in kindergarten classrooms taught by their friends or with adults in offices where other friends worked. They pooled their savings. When an agreement for a brick-and-mortar store at the corner of North Avenue and North Highland fell through, spring was blooming and they were forced to pick a drop-dead date for launch: April 1, 2010.
Steven had a single pushcart but no vehicle capable of carrying it. So he'd hoof the cart a mile and a half from the kitchen to a corner across the street from Manuel's Tavern. Nick helped on nights and weekends and sold 10 pops his first full day.
Local media came calling, attracted by the brash quirkiness of the brand. CNN anchor Don Lemon, a neighborhood resident and fan, invited the brothers on national television. Festival organizers and farmers markets sent invitations. Six weeks in, Nick left the solicitor's office to make and sell pops. A few days later they bought a second cart. Lines soon formed.
With no outside investment, Steven estimates the business cleared $40,000 in sales the first year, and its exponential growth has funded all expansions.
"We've never taken out any loans," says Steven, wearing a scruffy UGA cap and hooded sweatshirt with a hole in the sleeve. For all his simultaneous endeavors and lofty ambitions he's a calming presence.
Since the launch, the brothers have doled out more than 300 flavors -- chocolate sea salt the most popular by far. Driven by the season's offerings, other concoctions read like a tropical Wonka experiment: coconut lemongrass, watermelon mojito, grapefruit mint, lemon basil and -- for the adventurous palette -- pineapple habanero. Holiday blends include eggnog, spiced apple cider and peppermint.
"We try to keep things interesting," Nick says.
Outside of rudimentary equipment failure and vehicle tantrums, hiccups came in September when burglars stole two safes from the warehouse -- and roughly $20,000. A man who blatantly snatched a bag of money from a vendor in Decatur was never caught.
The setbacks have not quashed ambitions. Side ventures include Lick-A-Lots pops for dogs and a service delivering and picking up potted Christmas trees, which were then later planted around Atlanta. Community involvement and environmental accountability remain paramount for Steven, who envisions growing his own produce or sponsoring farms as the brand pushes into Atlanta's suburbs. Since 2010, two copycat popsicle competitors have emerged and faded, he says.
Steven pauses with the thought that popsicles could put his future kids through college. And then, smiling: "I'm in it for the long run."
The business is a family affair beyond the brothers. Its success has fetched their father from early retirement, and his wholesale experience is helping to ferry the product into large-scale retailers.
A beaming Jim Carse calls his sons good business stewards.
"I worked for a big corporation my whole life and never took the plunge," he says. "I guess they did what a lot of us think about doing but never do."