Local Hero Profile: Crooked Stick Pops
By Noah Baustin, CISA Program Coordinator
Published in CISA’s August 2018 E-Newsletter – Sign Up Here!
Julie Tuman remembers a young customer approaching her pop stand with a determined look on her face. “I don’t think she was old enough to read the menu but she came up with her money and she definitely knew how much change she was supposed to get because she told me in advance,” Julie told me on a recent July morning. The child quickly ordered ‘a red,’ but Crooked Stick Pops isn’t any old ice pop stand and Julie has a whole lot more than just ‘red’. On any given day a red could be a watermelon hibiscus pop or strawberry lemonade, or maybe that day it’s strawberry pineapple or watermelon basil. Julie puts together flavors that reflect the bounty of the season as she tracks down whatever fruits and herbs local farms have available. “There were five red ones and we had to take some time to talk about what they were all made of.” For Julie, introducing her youngest customers to new flavors is thrilling to watch. “How cool is it that we have kids ordering pops with cucumber in it, or kale, or even dill – and then loving it and having this really open experience.”
Kids are not alone in loving Crooked Stick Pops. In fact, the seed for launching the pop business was planted when a very much adult Julie found herself fanatically visiting and revisiting a gourmet frozen fruit pop shop on a beach vacation to Florida. “We would go there 3-4 times a day. On the way to the beach, on the way home from the beach, on our way to dinner, coming home from dinner … on our second way home from dinner … I loved it!” With a dream of bringing that same ice pop joy to the Valley, Julie decided to build a commercial kitchen in Easthampton two years ago and began experimenting with her own recipes. She found her first customers when she took her pop tricycle – with a cooler hitched into the front – on the road to summer hot spots around the Valley. Before long, the pops were a hit and Crooked Stick Pops became a regular vendor at the Northampton Tuesday Farmers’ Market, the Springfield Forest Park Farmers’ Market, the Amherst Farmers’ Market, and the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market.
Working the farmers’ markets has created great opportunities for Julie to establish relationships with farms throughout the Valley. She’s often thrilled to clear out her vendor neighbors’ stock at the end of the day (blueberries from Bear Meadow Farm are a favorite!). Julie aims to source everything that she possibly can from the Valley – whether it’s strawberries from Warner Farm, plums from Sentinel Farm, or ginger from Old Friends Farm. At her business’s small size, building those close local relationships are essential. “When you’re this small, it’s hard to get people’s attention. That’s why it’s so great to work locally. For example, Kitchen Garden Farm doesn’t need to work with me, they don’t need the $50 that I give them every two weeks but Caroline and Tim are awesome people and they’re happy to have me come pick up my tiny, tiny order even as other businesses are ordering entire pallets. I get the same level of attention.”
The farms that hear from Julie the most are often the orchards in the Valley – many Crooked Stick Pops are made with an apple base. For Julie, using apples as the building block of her pops is essential to producing a healthy product that she can feel good serving to the community. “I care about what I eat, I care about what other people eat. I want us to eat good things. I’m a perimeter of the store shopper, a farmers’ market shopper. I don’t want those processed foods … One of the nice things about the fruit pops is that they really are much better for you. We don’t use fruit juice – we use the whole fruit. You’re getting the nutrients and the vitamins and the fiber but anything frozen on a stick still feels like a treat!”
Along with the joy of producing a healthier product is the tough reality that making a nutritious pop with locally sourced ingredients isn’t always cheap. “You can find things that look the same as my pops in a big box store for way less money. There’s a lot of education that goes into it, explaining to people that this is food made out of food. Food has a price tag. I pay farmers and make pops out of their produce but there’s a cost associated with that. My fruit pops have a higher cost than commercially available Popsicles, just like a locally grown carrot has a higher cost than other carrots. We have to work on articulating the value of what we do – the nutrients in the pops, the lower food miles, everything else that goes into it – there’s value in that.”
People around the Valley must be sold on the value of Crooked Stick Pops because the business has been growing fast. It’s only year three and Julie already has six employees, a regular stand at five farmers’ markets, and a new brick-and-mortar pop shop in Easthampton. (Visit the shop in the Eastworks building Tuesday – Sunday!) Julie also does tons of pop up events so be sure to visit her at Food Truck Fridays, the upcoming Look Park Food Truck Festival, or one of the many other events up on her calendar. Running around to so many events can be crazy stressful but for Julie, it’s been a great way to spend her time. “It’s maybe not going to change the whole world but it makes an awful lot of people happy.” Plus, it doesn’t hurt that Julie gets to kick off every morning in a kitchen overflowing with giant watermelons, baskets of peaches, and heaps of plums. “My life consists of working with fruit and then interacting with awesome people. This is good.”