It started with a dream and a blender in a dorm room.
It was the autumn of 2011, and St. Olaf student Erik Brust wanted to honor an idea he and his cousin Jonathan Jeffrey came up with when Brust visited Jeffrey at Duke University. They had brainstormed about a superior frozen treat, one that was both fruity and creamy and made from natural, simple ingredients.
Jeffrey died at age 21 from a drug overdose -- before their idea came to fruition. But Brust was compelled to carry on, naming the company in his honor: JonnyPops.
He recruited a few St. Olaf classmates, including Connor Wray, to experiment with recipes and distribute samples of the frozen treat around campus for taste-tests. The winning formula involved fruit, real cream, cane sugar, and a pinch of salt. The pops were additive- and filler-free, not because Brust was a health nut so much as an enthusiast for real, wholesome food.
“As simple as it sounds, we were just getting our hands on the best ingredients we could in the world and that was the stuff we could find at the farmers markets and grocery stores,” Brust says. “Once you taste JonnyPops, you understand.”
JonnyPops appeared in several fruit flavors around the Twin Cities in 2012 at farmers markets, at vendors along the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes, and at the Minnesota Zoo. After receiving feedback from customers, Brust and Wray returned to college that fall for their junior year and polished up the pops. They moved into their own manufacturing space and started professional food service distribution, which gave the company access to many more vendors, restaurants, cafes, and convenience stores. By 2013, their reach expanded from about 20 locations to being represented in several states.
Senior year of college was an inflection point for the co-founders. They asked themselves: Is this something that’s fun to work on just while in school? Does this really have the cash flow to be a full-time job post-graduation?
JonnyPops ended 2013 strong, so Brust and Wray wrote up a business plan for how to take the product to new distribution channels, including grocery retail. In the spring of 2014, they launched with approximately 50 store partners in Minnesota. That year, the company was also the MN Cup Student Division Winner.
After Brust and Wray graduated with degrees in economics and statistics and economics and computer science, respectively, they took their JonnyPops positions full-time. They were both recently named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list for 2018.
Has this success come as a shock? Not really. “The exact shape and form that it’s taken has been a little bit of a surprise, but our plan in the beginning was to start a company in college and see it through all the way,” Brust says. “I think in some ways, we’re living the plan.”
JonnyPops now has 10,000 unique distribution points across the country – including in school cafeterias – but they’re on a crusade to raise its profile and encourage more people to give the pops a try.
“We’re not even close to available in all the places in the country that sell ice cream or even ice cream novelties,” Brust says. “Most people don’t know anything about JonnyPops. It’s all about getting the word out these day.”
The new Delights line should help with that. Five new creative flavors – dark chocolate, cold press coffee chocolate, cherry chocolate, vanilla mint chocolate, and root beer float – hit shelves this March. As with the fruit-based line, the new pops are made from real cream and natural ingredients, and are gluten-free and under 200 calories each.
The Delights were inspired by flavors JonnyPops customers have requested for a long time. While attempting to translate the requests into appealing pops, Brust and Wray tested hundreds of flavors. Some will require further tinkering; others will be released in the future.
And JonnyPops don’t just taste good; they do good. The company has a social mission called Better Pop for a Better World. Day-brightening ideas are printed on every pop’s stick, from “listen to a friend in need” to “cook someone a homemade meal.” Brust and Connor used to write the messages for the sticks themselves, but now they crowdsource them, be it through contests on social media or in school classrooms where they mentor. The company also partners with different retailers all over the country to raise money for addiction treatment organizations like Hazelden and Betty Ford.
As Brust says: “It’s all about paying it forward and giving back.”