Nicholas J. Carse gave up a job as an assistant prosecutor in Georgia's Gwinnett County a year ago to sell homemade frozen fruit pops with his brother from a cart outside of the Buddy's gas station in Poncey-Highlands. So far, he has no regrets.
King of Pops, their business making gourmet frozen fruit concoctions, quickly became a local sensation as their cart with the rainbow-striped umbrella popped up at outdoor festivals and farmers markets around the city during the hot summer months.
"I didn't quit the law because I didn't like it, but because I felt I'd regret it if I didn't try this. I thought I could always be a lawyer later in life," said Carse, explaining that it had been a dream for him to work with his brother and family and "have our own thing."
This summer, Carse, 31, and his brother Steve, 27, have expanded from the original cart on the corner of North Highland and North avenues to eight carts in Atlanta and two apiece in Athens, Asheville and Charleston.
King of Pops lets its fans know where the carts are and what flavors they're offering each day via its Twitter feed. Afficionados know that "pear van" means pear vanilla and "pine hab" means pineapple habanero.
"KOP is the new guilty pleasure. Overpriced coffee is yesterday's news; this stuff is the bomb," read one of many ecstatic reviews on Yelp.com for the frozen fruit bars, which are $2.50 a pop.
On one recent day, Carse's cart had pops in blueberry lemongrass, pineapple cilantro, cantaloupe ginger, sour plum, strawberries and cream, Georgia peach and chocolate sea salt at a new lunchtime street food market in The Stove Works parking lot off Krog Street.
Carse comes across as a laid-back, blond surfer type, but he is an excellent multitasker. As he talked to a reporter in between selling pops to the lunch crowd, he asked almost every person in line how their day was going and gave advice on flavors, then swiftly supplied the desired pop and made change -- and then checked his smartphone to make sure the reporter had spelled a name correctly, all without missing a beat.
Two ladies from Snellville said they sought out Carse's cart after seeing King of Pops featured on a Food Network show about street food. For them it wasn't just about frozen fruit bars. "We came to the food-truck market because of Nick," they said with big smiles.
Carse said his brother Steve is "more the people person" and that he's more detail-oriented, but he allowed that they were "both good personality-wise."
"We're selling the magic of the King of Pops," he said. "We try and hire people who do that."
The brothers now have six employees. Carse said they asked friends to start the King of Pops carts in Asheville, Charleston and Athens, noting that they are authorized retailers, not franchisees. "Those are our experiments, our babies. We want to see if other cities respond like Atlanta has," he said.
Carse said he and his brother have been approached by franchisors and investors but are not interested. "We want to keep it as tight as possible," he said. "It's not that we're control freaks, but we kind of are."
"We all believe in what we're doing," Carse said, explaining that their vision is to be ecologically responsible and community-oriented. They buy their fruit from local growers and use organic produce as much as they can. "But not the limes and other citrus," he said, adding that organic citrus costs five times more and that citrus's hard skins protect them from pesticides. They compost all their fruit waste and recycle, so they generate only one to two bags of trash each week.
Carse said King of Pops was inspired by a three-month sojourn that he and his brother made from Panama to Mexico a few years ago after visiting their older brother Ashley in the Panama Canal Zone, where he was doing field work for a doctoral degree in cultural anthropology. In Mexico's local produce markets, they discovered paletas -- frozen pops that Carse said the vendors make from the overripe fruit at the end of the day to keep it from going to waste. "Ours are a gourmet American version of paletas, with funkier flavors and better fruit," he said.
The Carse brothers loved the paletas and daydreamed about introducing their own version to Atlanta, but they had jobs at the time. Carse went to law school to become an intellectual property lawyer, after working at AIG for three years. He said he had a lot of friends in bands or making websites, and he wanted to help them with trademark and copyright issues. At Georgia State University College of Law, his study of intellectual property law included a semester in China to learn about its fledgling IP legal system and an internship at Georgia Lawyers for the Arts.
But IP jobs were scarce when Carse graduated in 2008, so he pursued a job in the Gwinnett solicitor's office, working in the courtroom of Judge John F. Doran Jr. Carse said he handled 25 or 30 jury trials during his one-and-a-half-year stint, mostly domestic violence, DUI and minor drug offenses.
"The courtroom can be an intimidating place," he said, adding that law school doesn't teach people much about actually being a lawyer. "Luckily the judge warmed up to me."
But then the financial meltdown hit. In September 2009, Steve lost his job as a product analyst at AIG.
The brothers decided it was time to start selling pops. They tested recipes all that winter, found space for a kitchen in Inman Park and, to generate buzz, painted a cheery mural of a giant pop wearing a crown on the side of the dry cleaner's building by Buddy's.
Finally, on April 1 of last year Steve launched the cart at North Highland and North Avenue, the flagship location, which Nick simply calls "the corner." After a month and a half, the brothers decided there was enough business for them both to work full time for the King of Pops.
"That's when I became the Earl of Pops," Carse said.
Carse said people often say to him that selling pops must be easier than being a lawyer. "It's not," he said, adding that he's working more hours running King of Pops than he did as a prosecutor. "There are stresses, but they are different stresses."
Carse handles the finances and spends more time in the kitchen, concocting new flavors and making pops, while his brother oversees the company's general operations. Inventive combinations of flavors that change daily, like watermelon mojito, banana cinnamon and orange coconut, delight their fans. The King of Pops' website lists more than 100 flavors that the brothers have created, including apple spinach ginger. Carse said his all-time favorites are pineapple ginger and blackberry mojito.
Carse has written some contracts for King of Pops, such as non-competes for all its Georgia employees, but he said that negotiating, not drafting contracts, has been the most helpful legal skill for running a small business. "That is a lot of what a prosecutor does," he observed.
He drew on his legal training last summer, after receiving numerous cease and desist letters from Unilever. It turned out that the Fortune 500 company owns a trademark to the word "popsicle" and objected to King of Pops' tagline, "handcrafted popsicles" on its carts, T-shirts, website and Twitter feed.
Carse said he consulted with W. Andrew Pequignot, a trademark lawyer at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton who is married to Lisa Fortune Moore, the head of Georgia Lawyers for the Arts. He and Pequignot thought he could win the case that "popsicle" is a term in general use -- but Pequignot warned that it would be expensive, since the burden would be on King of Pops to prove that a popsicle is "any frozen treat on a stick."
Carse asked some summer interns at Georgia Lawyers for the Arts to brief him on the pros and cons of fighting Unilever over the word "popsicle." They and Pequignot advised him to heed Unilever's demand, said Carse in resignation, "just to be safe."
"We're ceasing and desisting, mostly," he said, noting that they've removed the offending tagline from their current logo. He pointed out that the navy King of Pops T-shirt he was wearing still had "handcrafted popsicles" under the logo but said it was from last summer.
King of Pops is growing organically, Carse said. "We're taking the opportunities that we think are good. I don't know if we're taking the right path. I hope we are."
The Carses now have three daily locations in Atlanta for their King of Pops carts -- by Buddy's, at Woodruff Park and near Piedmont Park -- plus the roving carts. They also do catering and sell the pops in 10 local in-town markets, including the Candler Park Market, Savi Urban Market in Inman Park and Souper Jenny in Buckhead.
Carse declined to give the company's revenue but said he and his brother are paying themselves enough that he can pay his rent. "It's more about the growth potential than the immediate return," he said, adding that he did not ever foresee signing up "random franchisees" around the country.