What happens when a pharmacist and a physician get together to start a company? Popsicles.
You read correctly.
For some, it might seem an unorthodox career move. But for childhood friends and business partners Jennifer Serrano Rosario, 34, and Ramón Ortiz Sánchez, 35, founding Señor Paleta was the ticket to economic independence and the path to a new vocation.
Five years ago, the artisanal popsicle company had a tricycle and tree employees. Today, Señor Paleta owns seven stores on the island and one spot in Orlando, Florida. In total, it has 100 employees.
It all started with a dream and $25,000. “Ramón was always talking about being his own boss and, one day, after noticing a resurgence in the popularity of Italian and Mexican ice pops, he came to me with the idea. I said ‘why not, we have the perfect weather for that it’”, Serrano recounted.
Shortly after, the pair began experimenting with flavors and testing their inventions with friends and relatives. “When my nephew was born instead of cigars I gave away ice pops,” Serrano said in between laughs.
From the beginning, the entrepreneurs set out to capture the flavors and colors of Puerto Rico in one stick. The result: a velvety coconut ice pop, the most sought after flavor, or a slightly tart passion fruit popsicle with scattered freckles from the pulp’s edible seeds, to name two of Señor Paleta’s 48 flavors made with local fresh fruits and ingredients.
A successful stint at the Farmer’s Market in Condado during the fall of 2014 confirmed that Serrano and Ortiz were ready for the next step. They celebrated the new year opening their first store on Tetuán Street in Old San Juan.
“The fact that we were able to save and didn’t need to borrow money to start our business made a difference. It gave us breathing space,” Ortiz told THE WEEKLY JOURNAL. “We opened the store with $25,000, a small investment. Now, we need $100,000 to open a store.”
The pair learned the art of making popsicles online and taking short courses. They also followed their instincts and gut feeling.
Originally, the plan was to open the first store in Condado, but after learning in the news about an increase in the number of cruise ships visiting the San Juan Port, the duo ditched the idea.
“Our business model was focused initially on tourists. The focus changed when we realized that our number one customers were locals,” Serrano explained.
With limited resources, the duo got creative.
“The space that we liked and could afford in Old San Juan was on a street with slow foot traffic. Since we didn’t have money for marketing research, for four days I sat in a plaza across the street from the store counting the number of people that walked by, one by one,” Serrano indicated.
The company started with a 450 square feet space that housed the store, production area and storage. In its early stages, the small manufacturing operation produced 88 ice pops every 40 minutes.
The gamble paid off. Six months after opening, the store was flooded with customers. A year later, Señor Paleta was making a profit. Other stores followed in Condado, Lote 23 in Santurce, Paseo Caribe in San Juan, Plaza del Caribe in Ponce, Plaza Carolina, Plaza del Sol in Bayamón and the store at the Florida Mall in Orlando, which opened last May.
The production and manufacturing operation also expanded. Now the company makes 280 popsicles every 30 minutes. On a weekly basis and depending on the season, it produces between 18,000 to 19,000 ice pops.
“The business process was somewhat organic. From the beginning, when we created the logo and the brand, we knew we wanted to branch out locally and internationally. Not necessarily the United States. But after Hurricane Maria, we saw the growth of the diaspora and we knew it was the moment to open a store and that the place was Orlando,” Ortiz indicated of the growth of the business.
Besides using fresh fruits and ingredients in the elaboration of their popular ice pops, the duo continues to push the flavor boundaries with creations like the Churro ice pop, that has a piece of fried homemade dough dusted with sugar in the center, or the Birthday ice pop, that has a piece of moist cake in the middle.
Other Puerto Rican-inspired concoctions include the Christmas trilogy, based on the traditional coconut dessert pudding (tembleque), nougat (turrón) and rice pudding (arroz con dulce).
“That is what sets us apart. We turn traditional desserts into popsicles,” Ortiz indicated.
For the more traditional frozen dessert lover, Señor Paleta has a wide variety of mainstream flavors like strawberry, orange, Nutella, chocolate, pistachio, lime and mango. And, while the company has not been officially certified as kosher, its production process adheres to the strict standards of this religious dietary practice.
“As a child, I remember that every Sunday I went out to eat with my family. We would go to mass and afterward would visit an ice cream parlor. That is what we want to recreate here, that concept of the family trip that includes a popsicle,” Serrano said.