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On a 100-degree day at the Mount Pleasant Farmers’ Market, icy flavored popsicles are a welcome treat. But the two friends behind Pleasant Pops, the stand dishing out the frozen bars, recall that they were preparing to launch their business when Washington was buried under feet of ice during the record snowfall this winter.
One night during the “snowpocalypse,” Brian Sykora, who works for the National Democratic Institute, and Roger Horowitz, a preschool teacher and former campaign staffer for President Barack Obama, threw a party for about 120 friends to test flavors.
Months and a giant temperature leap later, the two are selling ginger-peach, strawberries and cream, and watermelon-cucumber pops to crowds at the farmers’ market.
The operation is decidedly low-tech: A white board announces the day’s offerings and which local farms the ingredients are from (the peaches, for example, are from Quaker Valley Orchard in Biglerville, Pa.), and the goods are sold out of a large cooler affixed to a bicycle that one of the partners rides from their nearby home. Even the company’s logo speaks to a simpler era, with its retro font and cartoonish illustration of two popsicles.
That homemade minimalism is intentional, say the two 25-year-olds who met on the crew team at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“We try to keep it as simple as possible,” Horowitz says. “People like local foods and all-natural ingredients.”
Horowitz and Sykora might have inadvertently hit on a foodie trend — New York Times food writer Florence Fabricant crowned the gourmet popsicle the summer’s coolest treat — but their inspiration was an old recipe: childhood memories and a little bit of boredom.
After the 2008 elections, Horowitz was drifting a bit after an intense job as the southern Nevada youth vote director for the Obama campaign. When his friend called him from Washington with a zany idea, he arrived in the city the following week. Both remembered paletas, Mexican popsicles created from fresh fruits, from their childhoods, Horowitz’s in New York and Sykora’s in North Carolina.
And although neither had a background in food or the service industry, they threw themselves into it with the same spirit that they applied to launching an environmental student group as undergraduates.
With an investment of less than $5,000, they bought the cooler-bike from a guy in Toronto who rehabs old equipment from Dickie Dee, Canada’s two-wheeled version of the Good Humor man. They started tinkering with flavors, assisted by input from their friends (a la the snowpocalypse party) and the Flavor Bible, a book in which chefs share ideas for complimentary taste combinations.
Getting the right permit and licenses and finding commercial kitchen space proved to be the biggest challenges, they say. Now, they rent space at nearby Mexican restaurant Dos Gringos.
They operate the cart Saturday mornings at the market and also cater private events that fit around their day jobs, including a recent apartment building opening in Baltimore and birthday parties (for both adults and kids). They say they’re exploring ideas for expansion, possibly selling at other farmers’ markets around the city and maybe operating a food truck or even a storefront location.
But for now, they’re keeping it hyper-local.
“As much as we can, we try to buy from the farmers here at the market,” Sykora says. “They’ll tell us what’s in season and when they’ve got a really great batch of something.”