In Latin America, the paleta is king.
Made with real fruit and not as much sugar as many standard frozen pops on the market, paletas are gaining traction in the U.S., too. And some entrepreneurs, inspired by the flavors and ingenuity of the original paleta makers, are turning frozen pops into profits.
The King of Pops
In 2010, Steven Carse and his oldest brother, Nick Carse, traveled through Central America, snacking on paletas from Panama City to Acapulco.
"We started talking about how much we liked them, and it went from there," said Steven, a former product analyst for AIG.
The Carse brothers later that year started King of Pops, an homage to the Latin-American treats in a food-cart fleet, based in Atlanta.
The company still calls Atlanta home, and it now employs about 30 people in the city. King of Pops has also opened a kitchen in Charleston, and this year expanded to Charlotte and Richmond. Each kitchen is run and managed by friends of the Carses.
"We help them get set up, but they're running their own business and dealing with their own local farms and come up with their own recipes," Steven said.
The fresh-fruit concept is driven by what's happening at local markets, so naturally recipes vary by city. "And we're finding that different things work in different cities," he added.
In Atlanta, a city with dozens of farmers markets (not to mention famously hot summers), the concept of the paleta, born in Latin-American farmers markets, is particularly fitting.
"If the fruit was too ripe, instead of allowing it to go bad, they could make it into these frozen treats so that they could kind of extend the life that food for significantly longer," Steven said.
King of Pops plays with market-fresh produce, incorporating ingredients like cantaloupe, cucumber and watermelon into summertime treats. But even in a city as warm as Atlanta, the growing season has its limits.
Though winter does bring some local produce, it's not always suitable for pops.
"We've tried to do things with spinach, not to the most success," Steven said.
Still, not all pops are beholden to seasonal produce. One of the most popular flavors – chocolate and sea salt – contains exactly zero fresh fruit. Neither do some of the more esoteric flavors, like coffee and doughnuts and Thai tea. A Coke float pop (check out this recipe) made the rounds last year, too.
"We've done silly things with pop rocks or gummi bears or cereal milk," said Steven. "It kind of runs the gamut."
In Washington D.C., the founders of Pleasant Pops, former UNC-Chapel Hill roommates Roger Horowitz and Brian Sykora, also get creative with pops.
Pleasant Pops flavors include Thai coconut cream, sweet tea and a chili-spiked cucumber pop. Many of the pops are inspired by Latin America, including the Chongos pop, which blends Mexican sweet cream and cinnamon.
Like the Carse brothers (and the paleta makers who inspired them), Pleasant Pops sources locally for its ingredients. Though the pops were originally sold from carts in the markets that supplied their ingredients, Pleasant Pops leveraged its street-sweets business into a food truck as well as a brick-and-mortar restaurant, Pleasant Pops Farmhouse Market and Cafe.
In keeping with the company's farm-fresh theme, the cafe sells locally made products, such as jams, eggs and the same milk that goes to make Pleasant Pops flavors like cookies and cream.
Anne Marie Ashburn, who handles communications for the company, thinks the success of the locally minded Pleasant Pops is strongly driven by dining public's desire to eat food made close to home.
"We source locally and sell at farmers market and people know us for that," Ashburn said. "That matters to people."
In Durham, N.C., Summer Bicknell owns Locopops, a brick-and-mortar pop shop that buys locally and thinks globally.
Inspired by Las Paletas, a Nashville store owned by two sisters from Guadalajara, Mexico, Bicknell quit her IT job and traveled to Tlazazalca, Mexico, to learn how to make paletas.
Locopops now has three storefronts and a strong presence in local grocery stores and restaurants. Even though Bicknell now spends most of her time in North Carolina, she still looks to far-flung places for inspiration.
"Every culture around the globe has desserts," she said. "And my job is to find them, freeze them and put them on a stick."
Bicknell says that the growing Latin American population in the U.S. has much to do with making her customers familiar with flavors like Mexican chocolate and tamarind.
"The American palate is a fusion of flavors (brought by) every immigrant who ever moved here," Bickwell said. "Probably more than any other culture, we are interested in assimilating lots of different food traditions."
At King of Pops, Steven says the public's interest in uncommon pops flavors like horchata and pineapple-habanero is instrumental to the success of the company's success.
"People in general, in the short amount of time I've been in this business, are more excited to try new things," he said. "We keep trying new flavors and people keep having more reasons to come out and try new stuff."