New Orleans: Pete’s Pedal Pops & Popstars

chef neal swidler popstars new orleans
Raspberry & Lychee Popstar with Asian Pear

In this next post about New Orleans, I chat with two locals who are helping, in their own creative, inspired way, to rejuvenate the city’s food scene. This is part of a series about the people I’ve met on my recent trip to the city, which started with the post about what Hollygrove Market and Farm is doing to revive the city’s urban farming tradition.

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Picture this: a lazy Sunday morning along Magazine Street, in New Orleans’ Lower Garden District. Towering colonial mansions overlook a tree-lined street, peppered with furniture and fashion stores of the sort you’d expect to see in an upscale Californian suburb.

Into this landscape enters a young man on two wheels. Black-rimmed glasses. Untucked plaid shirt. Khaki shorts. He’s on a bike, casually wheeling his way down Magazine Street, taking in Sunday in all forms: the brunch crowd outside Surrey’s, locals walking their dogs, tourists gawking at the architectural features of each house they pass. In turn, the street participants glimpse at him from the cocoon of their Sunday mornings, and stop.

This isn’t your regular weekend cyclist. This is a bicycle vendor selling, of all things, Popsicles. Gourmet Popsicles. That also happen to be organic and local. With flavors like Strawberry Basil, Pineapple Cilantro, and *gasp* Salted. Caramel. When did the humble popsicle turn so trendy?

Quite possibly, the gourmet street food craze that has overwhelmed the US in recent years had something to do with it. “It (street food) has just gone nuts in the past year. I have a friend in DC who’s selling Korean Tacos from a truck and he’s telling me about how big it’s been. In fact, I’m discussing with a couple of friends right now about starting something similar here too, maybe selling Banh Mi,” said Peter Seltzer, 25, the brains behind Canopy, a retailer of non-toxic, sustainably-sourced interior and building materials, and Pete’s Pedal Pops, his maiden venture into the world of bicycle vending.

“It all started on one of those hot New Orleans days when I thought, “It would be nice to have a popsicle right now”,” says Peter. It was enough for this business student to start identifying under-served markets, figuring out distribution models and conceptualizing a new business model. “I had heard of Meltdown (gourmet popsicles in the French Quarter), and I really liked their flavors, so I figured that it would be nice to sell their popsicles around the city, kind of like an ice-cream man, just with a different product.”

peter seltzer pete's pedal pops new orleans
Peter Seltzer, Pete's Pedal Pops

His entrepreneurial spirit is representative of the young energy that’s restoring New Orleans to its former glory, with a 21st century spin. Like most of the city’s residents, Peter was evacuated during Hurricane Katrina and ended up in Philadelphia where he stayed for three years, finishing his Entrepreneurship degree at Temple University. In 2008, he moved back, inspired by the many opportunities he saw in his home city. “There’s lots of opportunities for growth right now, it’s a mecca for innovative, hard-working people and I’m just trying to support that idea,” he says.

Behind Canopy’s spacious showroom on Magazine Street is the garage where, in addition to an unused popcorn machine, are the tools of his street trade – two bicycle carts embellished with the Pete’s Pedal Pops logo. And an industrial freezer filled with popsicles of any flavor you could possibly want (Chocolate Sea Salt?) from Meltdown as well as Popstars popsicles, the flavor vehicle created by Chef Neal Swidler from the local restaurant, Juan’s Flying Burrito.

Launched in 2006 as a side project to his private catering business, Popstars all began with a humble popsicle Chef Neal tasted at the New Orleans Jazzfest. “It was a hot day, and I got one of those popsicles from a hospitality tent. It was perfectly imperfect, you know? Like, perfectly cold, but full of artificial flavoring. I thought to myself that I could do it better,” he says.

chef neal swidler popstars new orleans

Strongly influenced by Brillat-Savarin’s tome, “The Physiology of Taste”, and priding himself as an artist who draws inspiration from his memories and his environment, the popsicle is his platform for expressing his creativity with flavors.

“As a medium, it’s a great vehicle for flavor. I usually have about three to four different flavors for each popsicle, like Grapefruit with Red Grapes and Crème Brulee, Peaches and Cream, Triple Berry Dreamsicles…that sort of thing,” he shared.

“I’m interested in how the flavor unfolds on the palate, and that informs the popsicle-making process. Take a Salted Caramel Apple popsicle, for instance. I start with the caramel, add salt and milk to it and freeze it in a single layer. Then I steep roast cinnamon and clove in apple cider, and layer it with the caramel. I want my food to be a revelation, something that kids can enjoy, but that also speaks to adults. I want my customers to be able to say “Wow!! What was that!” after eating one of my Popstars.”

Churning out 250 pops a week by hand, Chef Neal lets the seasons dictate the flavors he develops. “I’m an artist more than a chef, really. I’ve spent my time in culinary school, worked my way up the kitchen ladder…I’ve done all of that. Now I’m just looking to make food and treats that’s fun and accessible for my customers,” he says. “I’m constantly thinking about flavor combinations, trying to strike a balance between quality and flavor, and seasonality’s a great way to ensure that I use good quality ingredients.”

Said Peter, “My goal (with Pete’s Pedal Pops) is to celebrate New Orleans’ culture and flavors, by working with chefs that use as many local and organic products as possible, like our sugarcane.”

While this is still very much a hobby at the moment – Pete’s Pedal Pops started this past summer with just one bicycle – sales were so good that he bought a second bike, even with only a few weeks to go in the season (which ended on October 31st).

“This past summer we took our bicycles out everyday for two shifts – in the day, we’re at Canal and Magazine Streets, and also around the aquarium, where there’s a lot of tourists. We park ourselves some place and people come up to us. In the night, from 8pm till 3 or 4am, we’re at Frenchmen Street in The Marigny, and yes, we’ve had lots of traffic there too (despite the late hours).”

Looking ahead at the 2011 season, Pete’s Pedal Pops hopes to expand to catering for more private parties and events, and offering more “local, novelty ice-cream products,” according to Peter.

“This year has been a great learning experience, in terms of understanding what customers are looking for and also the best locations for sales,” he said. “At the same time, I’ve also learnt that I need to fight the prevailing stereotype that popsicles come in like 50 different flavors but with no taste, and so I’ve come up with a special pop flavor for the day – that gets people’s attention to stop and see for themselves the different flavors that we have.”

So the next time you find yourself in the Big Easy on a sweltering July afternoon, keep your eyes peeled for an unassuming guy on a bicycle cart for instant, delicious, relief.

Pete’s Pedal Pops
Closed for the 2010 season, to reopen for Mardi Gras 2011

Online and on Facebook
504. 383. 5POP (5767)

Popstars
Besides Pete’s Pedal Pops, Popstars can also be found at:

Restaurants: Juan’s Flying Burrito and Slice Pizzeria
Shops: Funrock’n and Pop City

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