Issa Ostrander is a self-described popsicle obsessive, a “master POPologist.” As he tells it, he can run down the ins and outs of every helado producer this side of the South Pole, and can explain the socioeconomics of the popsicle business pretty quickly. He knows, for instance, that popsicles are the number-one icy treat of South America. And he knows the health of every popsicle out there—both nutritionally and fiscally.
In his own popsicle facility in Kennett Square, Ostrander keeps a line of boxes of all the healthy dessert pops out there, claiming with pride that his own MomPops is nutritionally the best—and with a curious morbidity which ones have gone out of business.
“I like to know my competition,” he says with a grin.
Ostrander, 33, is the co-owner of Mompops, which makes non-allergenic, healthy and diabetes-friendly popsicles, aimed especially at children with severe dietary issues. The company, which manufactures 10,000 popsicles a day, provides its dessert to five area school districts and a slew of summer camps up and down the east coast. And it’s about to explode nationally: Next month, Mompops is set to deliver 350,000 pops to a summer camp chain with nine locations across the country.
Sandy Ostrander remembers the kids at the “peanut table,” who couldn’t sit around other students for fear of coming into contact with peanut butter and going into anaphylactic shock. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there was an 18 percent increase in children under 18 with food allergies between 1997 and 2007.
So it’s no surprise that Ostrander is a health pop evangelist. In truth, though, he was a popsicle skeptic not too long ago. The idea to make healthy popsicles came from…his mom. And he didn’t really like it at first.
“Oh, it took some convincing,” says Sandy Ostrander, Issa’s mom. “He didn’t really like it at the beginning. He’d say ‘This isn’t me, I’m a pizza guy.’ But he came around.”
Sandy Ostrander retired from her job as a music teacher after 40 years in 2010. She’d spent the better part of her life around kids who struggled to find a treat that worked for them. In particular, she remembers the kids at the “peanut table,” who couldn’t sit around other students for fear of coming into contact with peanut butter and going into anaphylactic shock. And, she knew, allergies are exploding in prevalence: According to the Centers for Disease Control, there was an 18 percent increase in children under 18 with food allergies between 1997 and 2007.
But it was her experience eating a foul major brand watermelon popsicle that set Sandy directly on the Mompops path. The sugar, she says, coated her throat; she couldn’t even finish it. She decided she could do better than Big Popsicle, and make something that virtually any kid could enjoy: A nearly allergen-free, low-carb, low calorie dessert made from natural ingredients.
At the time, Issa and Sandy’s husband were running a bake-at-home pizza business, and she made her first Mompops in their industrially-certified kitchen, out of whipped bananas. Issa says that the pizza business was good for a while, but he couldn’t figure out how to recuperate in the summer. In the heat, he says, people are unwilling to fire up their ovens, and they would lose 40 percent of their business every year.
And so, at the advice of his mom, Issa pivoted. He and his dad closed up their bake-at-home pizza business, and Issa began helping his mom, making popsicles from scratch.
That was about eight years ago. At that time, the operation was small and painfully tedious. They did everything from scratch, from pureeing the goop that goes into the popsicles to filling the molds themselves. Once the pops were made, Ostrander had to sit in the industrial freezer packaging each one by hand; at maximum efficiency, he says he could package maybe 15 popsicles in one minute.
And launching the business took time and a few failures. Consumers thought the pops were too big, so the Ostranders brought them down in size. They had to repeatedly futz with the pricing and popsicle count per box; currently, they sell at six pops for $3.99. They even benched a flavor that no one liked, orange coconut; Issa says the plan was for it to be the vegan creamsicle, but it didn’t pan out. But after a continued presence at outdoor festivals like hot-air balloon meets and dressage competitions, Mompops caught on. Now Mompops, which you can buy at area Whole Foods and specialty groceries, is turning a profit.
Mompops makes non-allergenic, healthy and diabetes-friendly popsicles, aimed especially at children with severe dietary issues. And it’s about to explode nationally: Next month, Mompops is set to deliver 350,000 pops to a summer camp chain with nine locations across the country.
The Ostranders finally purchased industrial equipment a few years ago—which actually complicated things, at first; Issa spent the better part of a year trying to figure out both the packaging machine and the machine that filled the molds automatically, known as a ‘doser.’ Now, Mompops has the material on hand at any one time to package 400,000 popsicles in its tiny facility.
The work is still done almost entirely by the Ostranders themselves. Issa says that they only hire two part-timers at a time to help out with production, and they’re not evenly intimately involved in making the puree or the freezing process; the job of one of the part-timers is simply to put 10,000 popsicle sticks into a machine that will eventually put those sticks into the molds. (Issa claims he finds it meditative.) Which means the next several weeks, before camp starts, are going to be pretty daunting for the mother-son operation in Kennett Square. “I’ve run it over in my head a few times,” Oslander says. “350,000 popsicles—that’s six pops for everyone in Chester County.”
Still, the master POPologist—and his mom—say it’s worth it. Popsicles are fun, after all. And they feel certain they’re making the world a better place, one pop at a time.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering: The popsicles? They’re damn good. Especially the pineapple basil, which I swear to God is the best flavor of popsicle I’ve ever had—though I might be in the minority. “The kids don’t really take to pineapple-basil,” says Issa.Header image courtesy of Mompops