Neil Ringer never knows how to react when the ice cream truck rounds the corner of 36th and North Davidson streets and its driver delivers a quick tap of his horn.
Is it a signal of solidarity with Ringer, 25, who peddles his gourmet ice pops to passing pedestrians at the bustling intersection in Charlotte, or is it the trumpeting blow of a festering rivalry?
It can be a fine line in the world of frozen refreshments.
Last year, Ringer and his business partner, Brandon DeCurtins, 31, brought the handmade treats known as King of Pops to Charlotte after a successful run with its Atlanta branch, where the business began four years earlier.
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The brainchild of brothers Steven and Nick Carse, King of Pops uses local produce and dairy for its ingredients, and operates in just four cities – Atlanta; Richmond, Va.; Charleston, S.C., and Charlotte. Each has its own kitchen that serves only that city.
“So instead of expanding like a typical frozen product, where you can ship anywhere, we decided to be specific to each area,” said Ringer, who became the company’s first employee after graduating from college in 2010 with a degree in anthropology.
Today, King of Pops has more than 20 employees dispersed among the branches.
Some workers, such as DeCurtins, left lucrative careers to take the risk and join the pops business.
“I was an attorney – mostly criminal law, and a little bit of personal injury,” said DeCurtins, who added that the work had left him unfulfilled. “Now I wear jeans and a T-shirt to work. It’s hard work, but fun work.”
For Ringer, slinging the gourmet pops was a natural progression. Throughout college, he worked in fine restaurants, where experimenting with flavor pairings was the norm.
It was practice that came in handy in a business model that prides itself on unique but enticing flavor combinations.
At a recent road race in Concord’s Frank Liske Park, a bespectacled Ringer wheeled his white ice cream cart into the center of the crowd, set out a green chalkboard with the day’s flavors – lemon basil, chocolate sea salt, and grapefruit hibiscus – and opened for business.
After an hour, his fair-skinned hands were pink from being plunged into the freezer.
It’s been like that at most locations where they set up, from their regular spots, such as the Wells Fargo Plaza in uptown at lunchtime, to farmers’ markets and festivals throughout the Charlotte region. In a typical in-season month they’ll sell around 10,000 pops.
Price per pop ranges from $2.50 to $3. They give back part of that cost if it’s a fundraising event. For a little bit extra, they’ll stamp a custom stick for their customers.
“We’ve had a few marriage proposals on them,” said Ringer.
Flavor creations are dreamed up in each of the four kitchens and shared. Charlotte’s kitchen, at 421 E. 26th St. in NoDa, came up with most of the cucumber-infused pops, such as cucumber watermelon, cucumber lime, and cucumber jalapeno margarita.
Not the kind of flavors you’ll find posted on the side of any typical ice cream truck.
Ringer and DeCurtins don’t knock the hawkers of mass-produced frozen treats, or people who clamor for them. Each has had their fair share.
“Those brightly colored freeze pops in plastic that came in a box of 200,” said Ringer, recalling his childhood: “I went through them.”
DeCurtins said, “I was a big push-pop fan as a kid. So, we’re brothers in arms, or at least their snobby cousins.”