Selling popsicles from a cart sounds like a standard-issue summer job, for sure — but an academically grounded internship? For George Werner, ’14, yes.
As an intern with King of Pops, he found in the mobile gourmet ice pop seller a place to apply his business classroom knowledge. His frozen foods experiences ranged from facilitating a citywide scavenger hunt and scouting potential vendors, to mocking up branding scenarios and researching market demographics. And yes, some days he traded the office for a mobile cooler with a distinctive rainbow umbrella to sell pops to hot and hungry Richmonders.
It turns out that operating and marketing a mobile food vendor is more complicated than meets the eye. One of Werner’s first obstacles occurred when they arrived for a tomato festival, only to discover that some of their paperwork had been lost. Werner says a sense of diplomacy in the moment was critical, and they were able to stay for the event. “You really don’t want to walk away and lose all of that money,” he says.
Richmond also has a booming food truck scene, with gatherings at city hot spots almost every night of the week. Werner had to figure out how to navigate the passionate network of vendors.
“I could have never imagined the connections I made to the community, with Grow RVA and the RVA Street Foodies, the Department of Agriculture, and the Richmond city government,” he says. “In a corporate world, a lot of times it’s black and white: you know your hierarchical status, you know who you can go to and not. In a local world, you never know the connections you’re going to make and what doors are going to open.”
The experience gave Werner a real glimpse into the challenges and benefits of operating a small, local business.
But King of Pops is a little different from many food trucks. While it’s a locally operated business, it’s actually part of a small corporate operation based in Atlanta, with pop teams in Athens, Ga., Charlotte, N.C., Charleston, S.C., and Chattanooga, Tenn. As a result, Werner learned to balance the freedom and creativity of marketing a product in a local-centric environment, while understanding and abiding by branding standards set by a parent company.
“I want to prepare myself for the corporate world, but I really wanted to see the local world as well,” Werner says. “King of Pops is the perfect juxtaposition. You can learn a lot locally that implements globally.”
With that balance in mind, Werner helped his supervisor and mentor implement customer loyalty programs and social media efforts designed to build long-term brand association in Richmond.
It seems to be working. During one Saturday afternoon in Carytown, “Oh, it’s the King of Pops!” was a common refrain. The company also has grown noticeably in its second summer in Richmond. Werner says they have more locations and participate in more events. And with increased capacity, they’re able to offer more variety in their flavors.
His favorite? “Definitely coconut lemongrass,” he says. “What I love about all of these is that they mix cool flavors. They’re never boring, which is important. People want something different, and that’s what they’re getting.”