As a franchised business, Frios Gourmet Pops had to get creative with its support once the initial wave of COVID-19 temporarily shut down storefronts nationwide.
CEO Cliff Kennedy felt it was time to go mobile, which wasn’t out of left field. Franchisees had already done iterations of this, with ice cream pushcarts and trailers. About five operators participated in the first test, and it wasn’t too long afterward Frios recognized how perfectly positioned its product is. The company sells prepackaged frozen popsicles in a variety of flavors, making it sanitary and safer to approach customers outside as opposed to them walking into a store.
The P&L potential is “drastically different,” as well, president Patti Rother says.
“The flexibility it gave in terms of labor was a game-changer,” she explains. “In a storefront, obviously you're paying someone regardless if you're selling popsicles. And then the food truck, if you’re at an event, you only just work the event and hand out popsicles and then you stop paying for labor as soon as the event is over. We're a really labor light model. We haven't struggled nearly as much as other businesses trying to find people to work our trucks and help our franchisees at events.”
Among Frios’ roughly 50 units, there are still a few physical stores, but most of the franchisees that remain in storefronts have favorable deals with landlords in which the overhead makes sense. And many use the space as their commissary to store popsicles and keep their carts.
FOUNDERS: CEO Cliff Kennedy and president Patti Rother
HEADQUARTERS: Mobile, Alabama
YEAR STARTED: 2015
TOTAL UNITS: 50 (all franchised)
The current franchise opportunity doesn’t include retail locations. The primary focus is now mobile vans, or as Frios fondly calls them, “Sweet Rides.” The vehicles are tie-dye and feature a slide-top storage freezer, internal and external remote-control LED neon lights, Bluetooth speakers, a built-in service window, power inverter, and a customizable menuboard.
Vans operate mostly around events, like an Employee Appreciation Day, or for schools, first responders, hospitals, festivals, fairs, farmers markets, and sporting events. On slower days, some franchisees drive through neighborhoods.
As of July, Frios vans stretch from the East Coast to Arizona, and by the end of 2022, the concept hopes to be closer to 100 units. The company established a predictable pipeline after being challenged by a shortage of Ford Transit vans. At the beginning of the year, Frios held off on signing new operators to provide a more sophisticated system of support to existing partners, and because that’s now settled, franchise sales are ramping up.
The concept sells territories the same way it would actual stores. It targets areas of 200,000 people—although that figure is still a work in progress—and contiguous zip codes. In addition to vans, franchisees can use carts and join wholesale partnerships with local businesses, sports complexes, and schools and universities. Historically, Frios has sold single units, but it did recently sign its first multi-unit agreement. There are also operators who have expanded and purchased additional territory and vans.
The chain manufactures and ships its product from Mobile, Alabama, so the brand intends to grow in concentric circles in the Southeast. With that said, Roth says Frios is opportunistic, and when a preferable candidate in a distant market comes along, it will send a case of popsicles for a test run to make sure it can predictably transport the frozen items.
Distribution depends on what state law mandates. In some markets, operators are required to have some type of commissary; the company helps franchisees along with understanding the permitting, licensing, and statutes when they first sign up. Oftentimes, because Frios isn’t prepping or making anything, it can skirt much of the requirements. Several just use their home to store popsicles in deep freezers and plug in their van.
“We don't want someone to go out and have to find like a storage facility or a commissary or spend money right away,” Rother says. “We want them to be able to generate some revenue and then as the business grows, really grow into a space as they need it.”
Frios prides itself on having diverse franchisees, and Rother attributes that to the brand’s lower initial investment. The biggest cost is the van and customization, but beyond that, the executive says the franchise fee is one of the lowest in the industry and royalties are a flat fee each month. Some—nurses, doctors, engineers, and teachers—use the popsicle vans as a side hustle and keep their day jobs. Others dive fully into the business and buy multiple locations.
The reason it works for so many is because of the sheer simplicity, Rother says. She adds that it takes hustle and work on the front end to raise awareness and showcase differentiation, but afterward, success is quickly within reach. Minimal hospitality experience is required because operators aren’t cooking; they’re just handling inventory and giving customers a prepackaged product through a window.
Rother says people from all walks of life have transferrable skills, and Frios’ training program fills in the gaps.
“We just rolled out a whole new wholesale training guide, how to secure those accounts,” she says. “Here's the brochure you can bring, here's the one page you can have on your van to tell people about the opportunity. Here's a template email you can send to start the conversation. And so trying to provide as much training and support around the how, that they can just focus on the execution has really been our focus, especially the beginning of this year.”
A number of franchisees take the winter off to spend time with family or to review their previous work season, like what events were successful or what partners should be contacted next. For some, business remains quite fruitful during the holidays. Frios has several seasonal flavors for the occasion, like Eggnog, Christmas Tree Cake, and Pumpkin Spice Latte.
Earlier in 2022, Frios was named to Entrepreneur’s Top New Franchises, earning a spot at No. 35. The recognition is representative of the company’s primary mission. The company refers to its franchisees as “Happiness Hustlers,” because it wants to emphasis its foundational goal of spreading as much joy in the world as possible through a comforting product.
“Being a franchise, you certainly need a different kind of hustle,” Rother says. “It really does focus on providing those moments of joy and nostalgia for people in your community, but you still have to work hard and so that Happiness Hustlers, just a nod to that, our franchisees work their butts off. But the end goal is always to spread more happiness as much as they can.”