'What you got?" Summer Bicknell asks her chef as she walks into the kitchen at Locopops.
Chef Timothy "Fletch" Fletcher is working on a new flavor for a paleta, or Mexican frozen treat on a stick that Locopops has made into a Triangle icon. The flavor being tested: rum raisin.
The mix isn't ready for Bicknell to taste. Fletcher has to add more cream and vanilla.
While Fletcher works, Bicknell tries to figure out what to do with fragrant cantaloupe and honeydew the other kitchen staff just chopped. She pulls out small bottles of essential oils. The trick, Bicknell explains, is to take a bite of melon and then smell one of the oils to figure out what might work together. While rosemary and mint overpower the melon, jasmine seems to be a good fit. She makes a mental note to test that.
Then Fletcher offers her a spoon of ice cream mix flecked with raisins.
After one taste, Bicknell says, "Oh, my God, dude."
With that, rum raisin passes the test. Later that day, it's added to the lineup and served at Locopops locations throughout the Triangle.
That informal creative process has served Bicknell well. This summer marks five years since she opened her first Locopops shop, now a Triangle landmark offering pops in such flavors as mango chile, Mexican chocolate and lavender cream.
(Authentic Mexican paletas, pronounced pah-LAY-tahs, are street food that come in Day-Glo colors and are made with artificial colors and flavoring. Bicknell uses a custom-made ice cream mix from a local dairy and local ingredients in unexpected combinations.)
What you may know about Bicknell, 44, is that she gave up a corporate job six years ago to become a paleta maker. What you may not know is that she stubbornly refuses to make her Locopops empire any bigger. That's the opposite of what she learned in business school.
Bicknell grew up in western Tennessee. The seeds of her future, unconventional business philosophy were likely planted at her grandmother's candy store, Sally Lane's Candy Farm, which still operates in Paris, Tenn. Bicknell's sister couldn't keep her hands off the sweets, and Bicknell was always in the kitchen watching how the candy was made. Because her grandmother's second husband was a Seventh Day Adventist and celebrated the Sabbath on Saturdays, the couple refused to sell candy that day, the most important of the week for a retail business. Instead they gave it away.
"They didn't make a ton of money, but they made a living," Bicknell says.
After high school, Bicknell followed her ambition: studied German at Furman University, graduated and got a job in transportation, went to business school at Vanderbilt University, graduated and got a job at UPS in Atlanta, got a better job at FedEx in Memphis and then moved into health care information technology. Her job title, director of clinical information design, was so long it appeared as two lines on her business card.
A turning point came when her boss wanted to promote her. She was engaged to be married and thinking about starting a family. That's when she realized: "I was already working way too much. I can't do both well." She turned down the promotion and then ended up breaking the engagement.
She was left in a job that she no longer found fulfilling and without a personal life.
A friend heard the distress in Bicknell's voice on the phone and insisted on coming for a weekend visit. That Saturday, they ventured to a Mexican paleta shop in Memphis. There was no seating inside so they sat on the curb and ate their paletas; pineapple chile for him, cucumber chile for her. She watched the customers stream into the shop.
"They walk in. They're happy. They walk out. They're happier," she recalls. So she told her friend: "I want to do that."
On Monday, she quit her job. The Memphis paleta shop owners gave her the name of someone in Mexico who could train her. Bicknell sold her house and loaded up the car with her two dogs but circled the Krispy Kreme parking lot three times before hitting the road for Tlazazalca, Mexico.
She spent six months of 2004 in Mexico - three learning to make paletas, three learning to speak Spanish. When she returned, she drove up and down the East Coast looking for a town where she could open her shop. She stopped in Durham for gas. That fortuitous fuel stop became her destination. She chose a name based on her parents' reaction to her sudden career change: "loco" means crazy in Spanish.
She found the first location, a fortunate choice on Hillsborough Road between Duke's West campus and the popular Ninth Street. Her sister, Holly, moved here to help her. They hired the college-age daughter of a neighbor and opened the doors. Within weeks, Locopops was a hit.
Her business philosophy
Two weeks after she opened, Bicknell got her first offer from someone wanting to open a Locopops franchise. Bicknell turned down that request and the others that followed. She was trying to get her new business going, and she was the only one who knew how to make the paletas - a situation that made her miss her uncle's funeral that first summer. Besides, she enjoyed her job and didn't want to turn that enjoyment into policing franchises.
She did want the business to grow. The question was: How much? She took on a business partner, Connie Semans of Durham. For three years, they grew from one store to four and placed the pops in almost a dozen retail locations, including cooperative grocery stores Weaver Street Market and the café-and-boutique NOFO at the Pig. The two parted ways last year because the business couldn't support them both.
Bicknell is reluctant to grow larger for fear that the paletas' quality would suffer. Remember, she has a background in transportation.
"I know how hard it is to get things from point A to point B at the same temperature," she says. "...I'm fairly confident that what shows up at the end of the chain is not what I handed off, and my name is on it."
And so, Bicknell says, when Whole Foods asked her to send samples, a preliminary step before a distribution offer, she refused. "That's a smart way of going," says chef Amy Tornquist, who owns Durham's Watts Grocery restaurant and Sage & Swift Catering. "Some people don't know when to stop."
Tornquist is not surprised by Locopops' success because it is a good-quality product, and the company has worked hard to become part of the community. (Part of that effort includes doing fundraisers and buying herbs from SEEDS, a nonprofit community garden that trains youth.)
"That makes a difference, especially in our town," Tornquist says.
Still about $2
Bicknell doesn't regret leaving the corporate ladder to make paletas. She loves the creativity of making new flavors, but she gets the most satisfaction from being part of the community.
People drive by her house, see her working in the yard, and shout out flavor suggestions. A father tells her he appreciates that she keeps the prices of her pops low, about $2, so he doesn't have to choose between taking his children to see a Durham Bulls baseball game and going to Locopops afterward.
She recalls a trip to the Durham Farmers' Market when a 3-year-old child ran across the lawn at the sight of her, screaming, "Popsicle!"
"You can get big," Bicknell says, "but you are never going to get that."
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