In college, Erik Brust discovered that his economics and statistics major at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota had sweet advantages. At least when it came to taste testing the recipes for an all-natural frozen fruit and cream treat. He had built in taste-testers—200 of his fellow dorm residents. “It was basically myself, a blender and four other friends in a shared kitchen and we started prototyping flavors. We tested recipes and put them in ice cube trays with toothpicks and then went up and down the dorm room offering tastings,” Brust recalls. This allowed him to collect data and then interpret his findings. “I could do all these little statistic projects on group A and group B about these different flavors and what people thought.” Brust came from an entrepreneurial family and although he didn’t know how far his taste testing might take him, he knew he was on to something.
The original idea took shape a year or so earlier. Brust and his cousin Jonathan Jeffrey wondered why there weren’t frozen fruit treats without artificial ingredients, colors or high fructose corn syrup in the supermarket. They began some initial research together, but in 2010 before the two could take the next step Jeffrey died of an accidental drug overdose. It turns out he had been privately struggling with addiction. The tragic loss put Brust’s idea of creating the perfect frozen fruit and cream bar on hold.
But Brust never really let go of the concept. In 2012 as a college sophomore, he talked it over with his investor friends and decided he was ready to move forward. For the next three years, Brust did most of the recipe development and experimented with flavors in his spare time and between classes. The team chose from an abundance of Minnesota farmer grown berries like strawberries, raspberries and blueberries as well as rich cream. Brust believes “the whole secret to the berry taste comes down to sourcing super high quality fruit because it dictates the entire taste. “
Once the prototype flavors were place, they were in business and, for the next three summers, they started selling the berry flavored "smoothie on a stick" Pops at farmers markets, school functions and local town markets generating a following of devoted fans. With the all natural ingredients—local berries, cream, cane sugar, purified water and a pinch of salt, it was filling a market where consumers were looking for a deliciously rich and tasty product without any unnatural ingredients.
Brust soon after came up with the name JonnyPops® in memory of his cousin. Logos and packaging were created and re-created, along with stick slogans that are printed with good deed suggestions like, “set a good example for someone”, "take time to play with your pet" and “give out a compliment”.
Fast forward five years and JonnyPops is now in 2,000 retail locations throughout Minnesota, Chicago and parts of the Midwest; Brust is a 23-year-old college graduate and the CEO of JonnyPops. It’s growing at a rate of 3-4 times a year according to Brust and is a profitable business with a pay it forward mission.
With 35 employees during busy seasons, 40,000-50,000 pops can be produced a day. “We’re in Costco and larger superstores, but in Minneapolis we’re still doing some of local events and farmers markets when we can,” according to Brust. “It’s where we can talk with consumers to get their honest feedback on not only new flavors but new packaging, items and good deed stick slogans. We can’t lose sight of where we come from.”
And the other part of that success, he says, is due to his original concept partner, Jonathan Jeffrey. Brust decided when the business got off the ground that he would give a percentage of profits to Hazelden, a drug and alcohol treatment center located in the Twin Cities, where Jeffrey had been a patient in its teen and young adult program. He also employs many people who are in recovery. Working as a team together, “gives us all a deeper sense of connection”.
Because of fruit being the main ingredient, a smaller version of a Jonnypop was recently approved as a healthy menu item at K-12 Chicago Public Schools starting this fall. After a successful test pilot in Minneapolis the fall prior, “we had over half a million kids actually eat it in about four and a half to five months, so for Minnesota, that’s a huge majority of kids.”
Brust is hoping for similar success in Chicago. Stay tuned for more.
Headquarters is based outside of Minneapolis in St. Louis Park. In Chicago, you can find JonnyPops at Jewel, Mariano’s, Caputo’s, Pete’s and Costco. North shore locations: Sunset Foods. For more locations, and information about wholesale and catering opportunities, visit: jonnypops.com.
Photos: Ann Flood