Locopops has grown into a Durham institution, thanks to serendipitous timing and pleasing many hungry customers over the years. You don’t have to visit Summer Bicknell’s standalone store on 2618 Hillsborough Road (though you should) to find these wonderful creations, as many locally owned stores carry these colorfully packaged treats. While we ponder going out to grab another popsicle, we’d love to share our conversation with Bicknell. She was kind enough to talk with us about her leap into Locopops, thoughts on Durham, travel, and more. Ok, Mexican chocolate is on the brain. Time to go now. Enjoy the read!
Summer Bicknell of Locopops
Tennessee to Mexico to Durham
Christina: How did you find yourself in Durham?
Summer: I came to Durham from Tennessee by way of Mexico. It was definitely the scenic route. I was living in Nashville in 2004 and getting ready for a job I hated. That morning, I was listening to a story about these two ladies from Guadalajara who had just opened a popsicle shop (Las Paletas) in Nashville. It wasn’t far from where I lived when I was a student at Vanderbilt, so I thought, “A popsicle shop! That’s fantastic! I have to get over there sometime!” For the time being, I put it on my list of things to do if I weren’t working this stupid job all the time.
First, the Paletas
Summer: Not long after, a friend and I went on the first really pretty Saturday in March and we sat on the curb with popsicles, me with cucumber chile and my friend with pineapple chile. It was then that he said the sentence that changed my life. He uttered, “Well, if nothing else I bet you could learn to make some of these.” He meant it as a cast-off, “It’ll be okay.” But I heard him differently. On the next Monday morning, I went in and gave my notice at my job and did not tell my parents about any of this. I first made a plan and then waited until I had already left to tell them. I wanted there to be no going back.
“How does one make Paletas?”
Summer: I had heard enough of the ladies from Guadalajara’s story to know that paletas are a traditional dessert made in Mexico, so I focused my efforts there. I ended up finding a paleteria run by an American man and his Mexican wife on a travel blog. I thought, “Ah ha! They’ll speak English!” I didn’t speak Spanish at the time. So, I wrote the editor of this blog and asked them to connect us. Surprisingly, I heard from the guy in two days! He told me I could come on down anytime. I sold my house and took my dogs and drove to Mexico. I didn’t really know if this is going to work out and they seemed really nice, but if it didn’t work out, maybe they could give me another name.
The Twist of Fate
Summer: I got to Mexico and, to my surprise, the American husband wasn’t there. I “Spanglished” with the wife to discover that they weren’t married, and he was hanging out with her trying to avoid paying child support back home. The story was that he went back to renew his plates in California, but he never returned. Once I got past the, “Oh crap, this is not what I thought I was getting into,” it turned out that I was getting into something better. She was the person with the knowledge and with the kindness. She put me up in her house with my two dogs.
Summer: I learned an incredible lesson on what hospitality actually looks like. If you put the shoe on the other foot and some person from Mexico by way of extended acquaintances contacts you and asks, “Hey! Can you teach me a trade?” No one would have said, “Come on up! You can have the guest room. Bring all your animals!” I don’t think it would have worked that way. I was humbled by how kind and willing they were. Hopefully, I’ve absorbed some of that and have become a better host for other opportunities. That was really a different definition of hospitality than anything I had ever seen before. I spent three months with her learning how to make paletas and then another three months learning some Spanish.
Back to America
Summer: I promised my mother I would be back for her birthday, so I came back in November 2004. The next question was where to set up. I wasn’t going back to Nashville because I had sold my house and wasn’t going to compete with these ladies. I stayed with the same friend in Atlanta who had put me up to all this and started to do day trips from there.
Serendipitous Stop in Durham
Summer: I didn’t have a ton of money and wanted to find somewhere in the South because I knew the weather would be appropriate for a big chunk of the year. I had put down a little money in a place in Charlotte and then I signed up for a retreat in New Jersey. I actually got lost and stopped in desperation for gas in Durham but didn’t think much of it. While at my retreat, I met people who lived and Durham and said they loved it. I checked Durham out on my way back to Atlanta and two weeks later, came back and rented a house.
Learn more about why we also love Durham!
“It just felt right”
Summer: I had no reason for that. I hadn’t done a demographics study, I didn’t have any research. It just felt right. For that reason, I didn’t really talk about it. I have an MBA and “felt right” isn’t a category on any test. After a long day of unsuccessful scouting, I saw a “For Rent” sign on the old location and thought I might as well ask. When I sat down with the owner of the building, she asked, “What is it you want to do here?” with a deranged look on my face I said, “I want to make popsicles?” and she said, “Mmmhmm. There will be a security deposit!”
Loco Pops is Born
Summer: I didn’t have a name for the place, but I had a month to open or I’d run out of money. I was talking to a woman who was trying to envision a logo, which is super crazy when you’re trying to come up with a logo not have a name, so we were spitballing names and nothing that came out of my mouth sounded good. She said, “What did your parents think when you sold your house and move to Mexico to learn to make popsicles?” I said, “They thought I was crazy, that I had lost my mind, that I had gone loco.“
Christina: How did things go after you opened?
Summer: We got very lucky. This was before social media, so neighborhood listservs were kind of the thing. In the first week, they were all saying, “You need to go check out the new place.” This was also before Durham had been discovered by anybody, so there was a lot of pent-up demand. People were just happy that somebody opened a business because they always felt that Durham was overlooked by the rest of the Triangle. Within a month, we had a line out the door. That was great because I would’ve run out of money really quickly.
The New Location
Christina: Can you tell us a little about the new location?
Note: Locopops moved to 2618 Hillsborough Road in Durham in 2018.
Summer: We had been in our old location since 2005. Everything was great there and we had wonderful landlords, but parking was limited. A move is destructive enough, so I didn’t want to go very far. And this was the property that showed up! It was funny because I had been driving past this place for 14 years and saying, “What is wrong with that house?” When I bought it, it had a flat roof. It was built maybe in 1914. Hillsborough Road used to be more residential and clearly the main drag into town from Hillsborough. From the pictures I have, they took an entire story right off the top of the house because they had a fire.
Christina: So why did you move?
Summer: When I moved, I wanted to satisfy a need to both grow and remain in the same area. The café came as a result of figuring out what to do with the space. I have way more space than I had before and didn’t really know what else to do with it. Our front room now is basically the same size as what we had at the old location in total. It’s been a journey trying to figure out how to best use the space. We can reserve it for parties, but if it’s not reserved, you can go in there and play board games or something.
The Influence of Travel
Christina: You’ve had so many interesting journeys. Mind to share how travel has influenced you?
Summer: Well not only did I travel to learn how to make gourmet popsicles but for me growing up our family never had a lake house- instead we traveled. My parents met in Tokyo, so travel is always a big part of our lives. And that made it the threshold for jumping off and running to Mexico with both the dogs in the car less scary of a prospect than for somebody who had never done any international travel at all.
Summer: Something that I think makes Durham a little extra special is that we have a higher concentration of international people living here than your average 250,000-person town. With that, more people here have traveled. More people here like to try new and unique things as opposed to the giant crowd pleasers. And that really helps because that is something that I was offering by trying out new flavor combinations. And I found a really receptive audience here. The thing about travel is that you’re going to be presented with stuff that’s unfamiliar and you have to enjoy unfamiliar in order to enjoy traveling. So that’s another way that I think that travel has influenced my business.
Advice for Others
Christina: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to do something like this?
Summer: I think on the list of decisions that I made, in the rearview mirror, is that we are made to feel that we have to follow that “American” way of thinking that if you aren’t growing then you aren’t succeeding. I pursued a strategy of opening multiple stores as the plan for growth. I assumed that each individual store because I knew how to run this one, would just be a less amount of effort. Number two would be 50 percent of the effort that number one was and that number three would be 25 percent of the effort as number one, and so on. It turns out that each one is its own animal. It’s like saying that having a second baby would be easier than having one. We went through one spring where we added three stores.
Summer: It turned out that what it did was just divide efforts and then it became its own structure where you can’t think outside of it. So with that, my advice would be is that if you have a business model that really only succeeds if it needs multiple business locations then you probably need to rethink things. Also, don’t let other people tell you what success looks like. Success looks like what you think success looks like.
Our Thoughts and Yours, Too!
While listening to Summer talk about her life and how Locopops came to be, one thing jumped out at us. Bicknell had to possess an amazing amount of faith in her idea because she was putting herself out there in so many ways to make this happen. We are so grateful to have met this inspirational person who decided she was going to do something she loved over something she didn’t. If you’re in a similar situation and feel like you need to break away from your current circumstances, you can use the example of Summer Bicknell and Locopops as hope that there IS a way out.