Q&A: Steven White of J-POPS

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Steven White never had any intention of turning his hobby into a business, but now the owner/founder of gourmet ice-pop company J-POPS is looking to expand. Admittedly, White didn’t know the first thing about starting a small business or gourmet desserts when he started playing with recipes while living in Atlanta in 2011. Fast-forward and J-POPS (named for his love of Japanese culture and ice pops) can barely keep up with demand. We talked to White about building a business in Columbus and why he can’t stop giggling about his new job title.

I really had no intention ofJ-POPS ever leaving my kitchen. In 2011 I was living in Atlanta and I saw gourmet ice pops were becoming a popular trend. I always loved ice pops and experimenting in the kitchen as a kid, so I started playing around with recipes and bringing them in to share with my coworkers. Prior to living in Atlanta, I was working in Japan as an English teacher. In 2011 the earthquake and tsunami happened, and like many people I felt helpless. Japan is my favorite place in the whole world, but I knew I couldn’t just go over there to help, so I decided to sell the pops to my coworkers and send the money to the Red Cross. One of my bosses encouraged me to make a business out of my ice pops, so when I moved back to Columbus to be closer to my family, I did some research. I was shocked nobody in the city was doing gourmet ice pops, so I decided to start J-POPS.

I was totally clueless as to how to start a business. It was all new territory; I didn’t know where to start with licensing or anything. I’d take two steps forward in the process, and then get knocked back one [step]. I took classes at the small business development center, and I had an advisor who has been a great mentor. There is always something that comes up that I don’t know, and there are people here to help me understand. I had zero clue as to what was needed, and they helped me down that path. Finally in 2013 it officially came to life. It’s such a bizarre feeling to bring a business to life. When you see it all come together, it’s almost like you have to remind yourself to live in the moment.

Columbus as a community is open to trying new things. I grew up here, and I saw what a great test market Columbus was. Knowing that the food truck business was booming, made me hopeful that J-POPS would work. My target consumers are foodies. People here have a more open palate. People are fascinated by the new flavors, but a lot of times you have to explain how the flavor combination works. I’m always surprised when a little kid comes up and tries a lemon basil pop. Their parents start them young. The food scene definitely helped prime my audience. I’m not a chef, I’m not even a cook — I freeze. I just did a strawberry pineapple tarragon flavor, but I asked a chef at the Food Fort how to make that combination work. There is a wealth of knowledge between the chefs and food truck owners here at the Food Fort. It’s a community here; we help each other out.

I work more now than I ever have in my life. I’m working seven days a week now, and being your own boss comes with different stresses. I don’t get a salary, so that is very scary. And there are no such things as three-day weekends anymore. Having a seasonal business is scary at times because you have to make money year-round. It’s definitely more rewarding work though. Having worked so hard bringing something to life, once it finally came together and I get to see it sell, it’s a very cool thing. Seeing people’s reactions to a product you are making is a great thing. I always watch the reaction after a person takes the first bite of one of my ice pops.

Expanding is a good problem to have.I should have expanded earlier, but I was afraid to take that risk at the time. Last year I was turning work down because I wasn’t ready to expand. It’s hard to let go of control. This project is my baby. Heather [Morris] of Destination Donuts told me you’ll never find somebody that loves your product as much as you do. Letting go of control is really hard. I didn’t initially think I’d feel that way. I’m a control freak in a lot of ways and it’s a double-edged sword. They say entrepreneurs are fearless — I don’t believe that. You can’t be 100-percent fearless; we all take calculated risks. I also wish I would have saved more money before I started. The second year we doubled in sales, but you forget about taxes. Everything is a learning experience.

It still freaks me out that I make money off ice pops. Last year I was asked to do a private event at Ohio State, my alma mater. Never in a million years did I think I’d be back on campus selling pops. Anytime somebody asks me what I do for a living, I laugh to myself. I remember my mom always saying I would work in the food industry, but I had no desire whatsoever. It ended up being that way. My best friend has a son who is 16 who works for me now. It’s so weird to think about when she and I were 15 that one day her son would be selling ice pops with me. Never in a million years do you ever think something like that would happen. It’s funny how things evolve in life.

Photo by Meghan Ralston

Age: 49

Hometown: Columbus

Current neighborhood: Bexley

Currently listening to: Bruno Mars


Playing favorites:

Favorite movie: "Grease"

Favorite TV show: "Modern Family" and "Empire"

Favorite cocktail/beverage: Mojito

Favorite restaurant in Columbus: The Pearl

Personal hobby: Traveling

What's the best way to spend $10 in Columbus? "Buying four J-POPS!"