May 4, 2012
It could be said that brother and sister team Joe and Liza Vergara have the entrepreneurial gene. As kids, they struck out on their own one hot and sticky Midwest summer and started selling ‘ice candy’ based on recipes from their mother’s native Philipines. Turns out they had a knack for entrepreneurship as their business grew so much over the course of the Summer that three competing neighborhood lemonade stands shut down! Fast forward to adulthood and the two have paired up again. Based in Las Vegas now, they’ve combined Liza’s professional pastry skills, Joe’s business skills, and once again pulled mom’s ‘ice candy’ recipe back out of the recipe box!
In 2007 the two of you started Sasaweets, correct? Can you tell us about what led you to start that company? What were you doing before that?
Before SasaSweets, we were both working corporate jobs. Day in and day out we were filling out forms, attending meetings, traveling to other cities for days on end, you know the life. We both decided that we’ve had enough of the corporate lifestyle, and it was time to live our own dreams. In addition to our day jobs, Liza was working a 2nd job as an assistant pastry chef at Nick’s Fishmarket restaurants and Joe was running a successful web store on evenings and weekends. In 2007, we decided to join forces and leave the corporate world behind.
When I met you at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco you were there to showcase your Sasapops products. How did you decide to branch the Sasaweets brand out into artisan all-natural ice pops?
Our foray into frozen desserts came about because of necessity. When we started in 2007, we only had 12 baking pans, a few mixing bowls and a dream. We started by selling our desserts at the Farmers’ Markets and eventually grew the business until we were supplying many well-known restaurants, resorts and country clubs with our premium desserts. However, even with this outstanding growth, it was still barely enough to make the ends meet. We needed to do something else. At the time, we were already selling our gourmet Shave Ice at the Farmers’ Markets and doing well considering the triple digit temperatures here in Las Vegas. We decided that frozen desserts were the way to go and frozen pops would make an excellent addition to the lineup.
Essentially, the dessert pops are inspired by the desserts we made for years and are almost always made with a milk and cream base. Our fruit pops are all made with a fruit and water base and every flavor is true to nature because we use only three ingredients for our fruit pops: Fruit, Water and Organic Evaporated Cane Juice. All SasaPops brand artisan frozen pops are made with zero added flavors, added colors, preservatives, stabilizers, or gums. We make the purest pops on the planet.
You focus on using all-natural ingredients in your products. How is that different from the ‘typical’ popsicle in supermarkets? Do you face any challenges when it comes to staying true to that focus of all-natural ingredients?
Our pops are very different, because we never use fillers of any kind, our pops are made with real food. The traditional classic american “popsicle” is nothing more than water with artificial color, flavor, sugar, gums, stabilizers and a whole slew of ingredients we can’t even pronounce. This is how classic popsicles have been made since they were invented. Our pops use no funky ingredients and are made with the best ingredients we can get. The flavors in our pops are never artificial and never added as a separate ingredient. What you taste when you eat a SasaPops brand artisan frozen pop is the quality of our ingredients and the complete lack of food fillers, additives and other weird stuff.
We have never had an issue with our pledge to all natural ingredients. We are not food scientists, so we wouldn’t even know how to use all those artificial ingredients. We have both been cooking since we were kids and we’ve only used real food to cook, so we really don’t know how to do it any other way. The only challenge to our use of all natural ingredients is the higher cost of raw ingredients, which is why SasaPops are marketed as a premium product – premium products are made with only the best ingredients.
You have some amazing flavors of Sasapops (which I enjoyed wholeheartedly at the Fancy Food Show). What inspires your flavors? How long does it take, on average, to create a new flavor and have it ready to sell?
We love food. We love culture. We love traveling in exotic places. To create new flavors we tap into those loves. Inspiration comes from all around us. Once we decide on a flavor profile we’d like to create we get to work in the test kitchen and start making samples. Then we get our taste testers together to try the samples. Our testing team is made up of friends, family and fans from our Facebook page. Once we get their seal of approval, we offer the flavor as a limited time flavor at our own retail locations. If we get really positive feedback from our customers, we decide to make it available for retailers to order.
Since I first met you at a tradeshow, you’re obviously focused on selling Sasapops wholesale to retailers, is this a change from how other Sasaweet products are sold?
At this time, SasaPops are the main product we offer. We still do desserts for very few and select customers by appointment only.
One thing that immediately comes to mind is how do you manage to sell a frozen product wholesale and keep it frozen until it reaches retailers’ stores. Is figuring out how that piece of the puzzle a logistical nightmare?
Let’s put it this way, SasaSweets has been a first class education in all things business. Every step of the way presents something new to learn. The logistical challenges involved in frozen foods is just the latest lesson we are mastering.
You recently got Sasapops into Whole Foods in your local Nevada area. Can you tell us a little bit about that process? How did you approach them and convince them to bring your treats into their stores?
Funny story actually. Our friend told us about Whole Foods holding an open “casting call” for local products in Las Vegas. At the time, we had just opened a new location at the Las Vegas Premium Outlet Mall. When we were meeting with the local buyer, one of our customers from the Mall just happened to be walking into the Whole Foods store and exclaimed her love for our Pineapple Creme pop. The timing was so perfect, the Whole Foods buyer actually suspected we paid someone to say that. After the buyer tried the samples we brought she was convinced and told us she wanted us in her stores on the spot.
Since you first started Sasaweet in 2007 that means you’re coming up on your fifth year of business. Are there any mistakes you made those first few years that you look back now and just shake your head over?
Thankfully, we grew our business organically, meaning we never accepted any large injections of funding. SasaSweets was literally started with $3000 and a dream. There were a few opportunities that we missed because we didn’t have the resources at the time. In retrospect, we are glad we missed those opportunities because it helped us evolve to where we are today. Also, our organic business growth forced us to think long and hard about any use of resources- it made us work not just harder but smarter.
On the flip side, staying in business through one of the toughest economies in our lifetime is a testament to your products and your company. What would you say are some of the best things about running your own small food business?
The best thing about running your own company is you can set your own schedule. We have the freedom to choose any twelve hour shift you want…every day. Ha! Seriously though, the best thing about our business is that we have really cool bosses!
Sasapops was recently named a 2012 Food & Beverage Product Innovation Award Winner by the National Restaurant Association so if you’re going to be in Las Vegas anytime soon you will undoubtably want to give these pops a try. More information about Sasapops is available on their website.