Cliff Kennedy will never have to wear a tie to work again and he couldn’t be happier. Sometimes, the chief executive officer of Frios even wears workout clothes to the office.
“This is me dressed up, I can assure you of that,” Kennedy said, wearing a polo shirt and jeans at the new Frios corporate headquarters in Mobile. “To make popsicles, you don’t have to be dressed up.”
Before going into the popsicle business, Kennedy was an executive at a family-owned business selling safety equipment to the local oil and gas industry.
“So, I was in a family business since I was 5 years old that my grandfather started out of the back of his car,” he said. “I was corporate sales director and I love my parents to death, but we had differing ideas of what success … I just had too much entrepreneur in my blood, like my grandfather. I just had to do my own thing.”
With three children under 5 years old, the idea of taking on his own business took some convincing for his wife.
“She is on board and she has been my biggest supporter through all of this,” he said.
The lax dress code also attracted Chief Operating Officer Jeff Carter, who came to the company from the city’s Bloomberg Innovation Team.
“There were two rules,” Carter said. “No ties and no committees. I’ve gone from being a paramedic to policy to popsicles.”
A casual dress code doesn’t mean Carter and Kennedy didn’t work hard to move the popsicle factory from Gadsden to Mobile without losing too much production time.
“We moved a popsicle factory 400 miles in 96 hours and missed two hours of production,” Carter said.
The move had been planned since Kennedy bought the company in December. First, he rented out space and started a buildout of a facility on the Interstate 65 service road (the former Smith’s Bakery). Next, came the logistics of moving an entire factory from one facility to another. Kennedy put Carter in charge of that.
“We ran a full day of production in Gadsden on schedule [on June 20],” Carter said. “We ended production, came in that night and broke everything down, cleaned everything, packed everything. The next morning we loaded everything on an 18-wheeler and a U-Haul and some trucks and a few other things and Friday evening we transitioned to Mobile.”
That weekend the crew of some 25 people unpacked, cleaned and positioned everything on a 6,000-square-foot factory floor to prepare for inspections on Monday morning.
“We had some really great partners with the state health department and FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration],” Carter said. “They made themselves available to be here Monday morning at 8 a.m. The only reason we lost two hours of production time was because our inspector got stuck in traffic.”
From the moment he bought the company, Kennedy wanted to move it to Mobile, his hometown.
“I’m from Mobile, born and raised,” he said. “So, I want this place to be a national company and be made in Mobile.”
In addition to the hometown vibes, though, there were business reasons to move the factory. For one, the Mobile facility is larger, Carter said.
“A lot of this move was certainly because we care about Mobile,” Carter said. “We were going to grow. We might as well do it in Mobile.”
The move came with an anticipation the company would grow and produce more and more popsicles for franchise owners around the country. For this reason, Kennedy currently rents out 30,000 square feet of a possible 120,000-square-foot former bakery building.
The current space includes a 6,000-square-foot factory floor where all the Frios popsicles are made. This new factory is about 2,000 square feet larger than the former space in Gadsden, Kennedy said.
“So, the other place was around 4,000 square feet, this is 6,000,” he said.
As for the facility, Kennedy said the team built out “literally everything” from the fire and water systems to everything in between.
The freezer at the Mobile facility is close to three times larger than the one the company used in Gadsden, Kennedy said.
“We have a 1,000-square-foot freezer, which is three times the capacity we had in Gadsden,” he said.
The freezer, which sits at 30 degrees below zero, can hold 5,000 cases of popsicles at once, or 240,000 individual pops, Carter said.
During the last week of June, Frios was still shipping everything out of Gadsden and Kennedy and others were “ramping up” in Mobile.
“We’re usually making 12,000 to 15,000 pops a day in Gadsden,” Kennedy said. “We’ve got more equipment so that number will go up. We’ve got more equipment down here and more space so we’ll probably be able to double that.”
On the new factory floor, workers mix pops or cook the creamy pop flavors before putting them into molds and freezing them at 50 degrees below zero before putting them into the freezer. Once the pops are made, they are shipped out across the country in more than 150 coolers packed with dry ice and on pallets in a freezer truck.
Under the watchful eye of head chef Camille Sharpless, popsicle flavors are developed and perfected, Kennedy said.
“She’s got a culinary background, which is great for us,” he said. “She understands how to change up a flavor.”
For instance, Kennedy thought the king cake pop was too cheesy. Sharpless helped redevelop it and made it “one thousand times better.” It’s the same for other popsicles as well.
“We just redid our watermelon pop,” Kennedy said. “Our watermelon pop is 10 times better now. Part of [this] is innovating; always making ourselves better.”
The top-selling Frios flavor is cookies and cream, Kennedy said, followed by pink lemonade, caramel sea salt, birthday cake and strawberry mango.
Frios can make up to 108 flavors of pops, Kennedy said, but currently makes about 30 or 40 different flavors at once. The company uses data points to determine when to introduce or bring flavors back into markets it serves, he said.
“We know what’s popular and a bunch of it is seasonal too,” Kennedy said. “We’re not putting pumpkin out in the summertime, but we have pumpkin cheesecake and all these other flavors that come out.”
The company uses Slack, an email conversation tool, to discuss new flavors with franchise owners.
“They’re the ones on the ground level, having people walk in saying, ‘Hey, I wish I had this flavor,” or, “I wish I had this flavor,’” Kennedy said. “So, we listen to them and once we see a trend start, we try to figure out how to make it.”
However, flavor suggestions also come from Kennedy’s family. He played his son in a game of rock, paper, scissors recently to determine the fate of a cotton candy-flavored pop. His son won two out of three contests, so Kennedy will make the new flavor.
“Like every day now, he’s like, “Dad, where’s my cotton candy? Where’s my cotton candy?,’” Kennedy said. “So, we’re going to eventually figure that one out.”
Not all flavor suggestions make it to production, though. Among the weirdest flavor suggestions Kennedy and Carter received was for a popular Brazillian cheese.
“It’s so weird because I was like, there’s no way I’m making this,” Kennedy said. “It’s like a cheese flavor and it’s supposed to be the best thing ever.”
There have been a few pickle-flavored pop suggestions recently, too, Kennedy said, which he’s unsure about. He understands new flavors will continue to emerge as the company grows.
“So, as we grow we have to understand the new markets that we’re in,” he said. “Southern flavors are different than Northern flavors and those are different from Hispanic flavors. We are constantly trying to innovate.”
However, Kennedy wants to make sure all the flavors are good and they don’t grow too fast.
“At the same time, we don’t want to have a million different flavors out there,” he said. “We have some amazing flavors that sell really well and we don’t want to complicate what we’re doing.”
Alison Groom and her family have a running joke about her jump into the popsicle business.
“My husband says that if you told us a year ago we would be selling popsicles I would have laughed in your face,” she said. “We wanted to run on our business, but we didn’t want to do anything with food.”
That changed for Groom when she met Kennedy at a franchise expo in Dallas last year. At the time, Kennedy was a franchise owner, but he was pushing people toward Frios franchise ownership, Groom said.
“After speaking with him and tasting a pop … I had never had a pop that tasted like that,” she said. “It really was a good fit.”
Groom jumped in and now owns one of the 36 brick-and-mortar Frios shops across the country. Her shop in Keller, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth, was the No. 1 store in May. It opened on April 24.
“Cliff [Kennedy] has been a really good mentor for us,” she said. “It has been smooth sailing ever since.”
Frios currently has 28 franchise owners, operating 36 stores around the country. The company has other partnerships, as well, including a deal with Mellow Mushroom, which sells pops nationwide in almost all of its 197 restaurants.
“I just see this as a really unique opportunity to grow something cool in Mobile, but at the same time have an ability to help grow businesses all over the U.S.,” Carter said. “All these guys who become franchise owners with Frios, they all have a dream. They all have the ‘I want to do it myself and make my own way in life,’ and we’re helping to enable them to do that. That’s a real cool thing.”
Frios is under new ownership partly because of the lack of support Kennedy felt as a franchise owner, he said.
“We were out there on an island by ourselves trying to figure out how to sell pops and do this,” Kennedy said. “We needed help and we couldn’t get it like we needed.”
Kennedy and Carter are now constantly trying to support franchise owners, while at the same time attracting new ones.
“We’re all in this together and we’re only as successful as our franchisees,” Kennedy said. “So, we’re going to give them every reason to be successful.”
While Kennedy takes it upon himself to sell Frios to new and budding franchise owners, he considers the other owners salespeople as well.
“I’ve got 28 salespeople the way I look at it, because we train up all of our franchisees to get excited,” he said.
However, Kennedy expects growth to come and he’s excited about it.
“So, as cliché as it is, Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is Frios,” he said. “I’m going to go out and grow this company, grow territory, grow deals we have coming on board ….”
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