Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
When Pop Fizz opened in Albuquerque's South Valley, the Alvarez family didn't have to go out looking for press. It came to them.
"It was a bright storefront, and the inside was renovated," says Carlos Alvarez, one of the store's co-owners. "That's something you don't really see in that particular part of town." Pop Fizz is also based in a city where palates appreciate the piquant flavors of Mexico and where the average summer temperature is 90 degrees. A popsicle shop that sells flavors like mango chile and pineapple habanero was bound to attract attention.
A local blogger showed up for the grand opening of Pop Fizz in March 2013, and within weeks, the store was featured in the local paper The Alibi, as well as in a TV news segment. That small media whirlwind gave the business early momentum, a hot start that's never cooled.
Today, the popsicle shop, or paleteria, is a beloved part of the South Valley. (A paleta is an ice pop, named for the small stick that acts as a handle.) Carlos owns the store along with his younger brother, Lorenzo, and their father, Rafael. Together, the Alvarezes create flavors that harken back to their roots across the border in Mexico. The store's pink, blue, and white trucks are staples at local events, farmers' markets, and even weddings. And the treats attract visitors from all parts of town, including affluent neighborhoods like the Heights and Nob Hill. "It's sort of an excursion," says Carlos. "It gives people a reason to come down to an area they normally wouldn't.
"If you know anybody from Albuquerque," he says, "they're gonna tell you they're afraid of the South Valley. There's a bad stigma about it." In fact, Pop Fizz is located just down the road from the culturally notorious burrito joint Twisters, which stood in for Los Pollos Hermanos, the center of Albuquerque's meth empire in the hit AMC show Breaking Bad.
"We'd like to help change that," says Carlos of the neighborhood's unsavory image. And that's what they're doing, one tasty, brightly colored popsicle at a time.
A family finds its sweet spot.
When the Alvarez brothers were kids, the family bounced back and forth between El Paso and the Mexican city of Juarez. It was there that they fell in love with the paleterias that dominate Mexico the way ice cream and frozen yogurt shops do the United States.
Other south-of-the-border dining experiences influenced them too. Carlos fondly remembers being taken to an ice cream shop in Mexico for his first pecan milkshake. "Delicious," he says. "I was hooked." That taste helped inspire Pop Fizz's pecan cajeta popsicles, a nutty concoction with a hint of caramel.
After graduating from the University of New Mexico in 2008 and 2010 respectively, Carlos and Lorenzo remained in Albuquerque. Carlos, who majored in finance, took a job with Hewlett-Packard. Lorenzo worked as a construction estimator for an electrical contractor. They waited out the recession. "I always wanted to be an entrepreneur," says Carlos. "I knew that I wasn't gonna be in that corporate setting for the rest of my life."
When the economy improved, Rafael Alvarez moved from El Paso and took a job teaching elementary school in Albuquerque to be closer to his kids. With all three in the same place, the timing was right to go into business together. Carlos's finance background made him a natural fit for a CFO-like role, while Lorenzo's time in construction meant he could oversee work on spaces in need of renovation. Rafael kept his teaching job and joined his sons as a one-third owner.
The paleteria idea seemed like a natural fit. "There's tons of them in Mexico and South America," says Carlos. "There's nothing over here in the States that's really like that. And we knew that there's a dominant Hispanic population here in New Mexico, so we thought it might lend well to the current population. They might see these things that they saw in their childhood and stop by and support us."
That assumption proved to be correct. People came out in droves to sample flavors like cucumber lime chile and a sweet cafe con leche. "The avocado is extremely tasty," says Matthew Maez, a customer who has been "obsessed" with the business since it first opened. "Most people are scared to try it. I like buying it for my more squeamish friends on their first trip to Pop Fizz."
The Alvarezes have hired two full-time employees and seven part-timers. They bought several trucks and food carts that they have planted around town. Pop Fizz began showing up at farmers' markets and community events. Enhancing the local appeal, the Alvarezes use many ingredients sold in those markets.
But the greatest attraction is the exotic flavors. "A lot of them are common in Mexico but just not that common in the U.S.," says Carlos. "So what's called Jamaica -- the hibiscus flower -- is a really popular flavor. Then we have Mexican chocolate. It's chocolate with a little bit of cinnamon, and then we add a little chipotle powder for some smoky flavor."
Wedding cake and a cold lick.
Pop Fizz received its first request to supply a wedding a few months after opening. That didn't surprise Carlos much. "It gets pretty hot here during these summer months," he says. "Not a bad idea to have cool treats for your guests."
Soon, serving Pop Fizz at receptions became a trend. Typically, one of the Alvarezes shows up with a cart. "I hired the Pop Fizz cart for our wedding," wrote one Facebook commenter, "and it was the highlight of the evening for many of our guests." (That's good news for the Alvarezes, if not necessarily for the couple.)
In addition to weddings, the shop is the preferred caterer for events held in the Hispanic Cultural Center. And the brothers are often spotted manning their own trucks at markets and other events on weekends. Adding to the fun, Pop Fizz has just been granted a liquor license. That means tequila- and rum-based popsicles are on the horizon.
Although popsicles are the main attraction, Pop Fizz also offers Tex-Mex food like nachos and sandwiches called tortas. That helps the business stay afloat during the winter months -- which are cold, but not that cold -- when sales are down. Also available are fruit-flavored sodas imported from Mexico and made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. That's the Fizz to go along with the Pop.
Soon, Pop Fizz's distinctive flavors will be easier to find. The business is getting wholesale certification: Packaged popsicles will be available in local grocery stores and, eventually, Whole Foods, starting in Albuquerque. For now, the store's kitchen will remain its sole production facility.
New life in an old neighborhood.
The strip where Pop Fizz opened, a block on Bridge Boulevard at the heart of the South Valley, is a lonely row of brick facades with old, peeling paint jobs. It's not surprising that the colorful storefront stood out. It overlooks an empty lot, and several of Pop Fizz's original neighbors were vacant properties.
"This is just an old part of town," Carlos says. "It hasn't been getting the attention it deserves for the past 30, 40 years or so." In fact, when they moved in, much of their building's infrastructure was unusable. "Somebody had made this insulation from paper, old newspapers cut into strips, and then weaved it," says Lorenzo. "We pulled out as much of that as we could. We had to replace the suspended ceiling. The wiring was very old, too. There were hardly any outlets. The plumbing was terrible.
"Other than that," he says with a laugh, "it was great."
But operating out of an old, broken-down building was a struggle. When the family received an offer to settle into the Hispanic Cultural Center, it accepted and moved in this past spring. Pop Fizz now has an industrial kitchen instead of appliances with half-inch pipes and poor air circulation. "It was the better decision for us to go to a newer facility," says Carlos.
Still, the location is just half a mile down the road from where the business started. The family is committed to being part of this area's renewal. "It's important, because the Valley and these surrounding communities epitomize what Albuquerque is," says Carlos. "They're the original neighborhoods of Albuquerque. They are Albuquerque. So we want to give them the respect that they deserve."