In 1905, 11-year-old Frank Epperson mixed himself a soft drink by stirring powdered soda into water with a wooden stick. He absentmindedly left his glass on the porch overnight.
The concoction froze, and the serendipitous result was the Eppsicle, ultimately patented as the Popsicle.
These days, Epperson’s accidental alchemy is enjoying a renaissance. Ice pops have evolved beyond a simple freezer aisle staple, popping up everywhere from major music festivals to gourmet menus in flavors like black sesame honey, mango chamoy and Champagne elderflower.
In Madison, a happy medium between kid-friendly and foodie parent-approved can be found in elevated yet accessible Chrysalis Pops, peddled via pedal on a custom-made cooler tricycle.
Chrysalis Pops are locally made with organic ingredients and produced with a purpose. Since 2016, this social enterprise has offered Dane County adults with mental health challenges meaningful paid work experience. Participants have the opportunity to learn on-the-job skills, develop employment goals and eventually transition into the longstanding Chrysalis Supported Employment program.
Along the way, the Chrysalis Pops cooler trike serves as a conversation starter. It’s a conduit for sharing the Chrysalis mission of addressing community mental health stigma while promoting access to local and/or organic produce.
I visited Chrysalis Pops on a recent afternoon at the Eastside Farmers’ Market. Chrysalis is regularly at that market on Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., as well as the Dane County Farmers’ Market on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
A Chrysalis employee, Sharon Bunch, stood behind the cart and doled out pops to a steady stream of customers intrigued by tantalizing flavors. Each one seemed ideal for staving off the afternoon temperature spike: cucumber mint with lime, raspberry basil, strawberry lemon and cold brew coffee with salted vanilla.
Chrysalis pops cost $3.50 apiece. When I asked Bunch what her favorite flavor was she promptly replied “strawberry lemon,” so that was the popsicle I picked to accompany my chat with Max Licker, the aptly named Chrysalis Pops Operations Manager.
Licker, who has a master’s degree in food studies, moved to Madison at the request of Dani Rischall, the executive director of Chrysalis and the wife of Licker’s best friend. He came in for year two of Chrysalis Pops to expand the enterprise.
“I inherited most of the recipes,” Licker said. “I definitely made some changes. The biggest feedback I got was that they’re a little too sweet, so I reduced the sugar and upped the citrus in most of them.”
The flavor profiles are primarily driven by produce grown at Madison Christian Community Gardens, which devotes an entire area to Chrysalis Pops and donated 600 pounds of produce to the program in 2017 alone. The raspberries, cucumbers and strawberries Chrysalis is using for the start of the season were harvested and frozen after picking last year.
Chrysalis just got its first 2018 rhubarb harvest and used it to make the first batches of strawberry rhubarb pops this week.
“They’re open to planting new things if we would like them to,” Licker said. “We asked them to plant some sweet corn for us this year ... we’d like to do a corn pop later in the summer.
“They already had lots of strawberries and raspberries and rhubarb, so you’ll see those in our current flavors.”
As we talked, I savored my strawberry lemon pop, rich, red, studded with just enough tiny strawberry seeds and balanced impeccably between sweet and tart. I wondered if there were other experimental flavors in the works.
“I thought since we’re in Wisconsin, it would be appropriate to have cheese in a pop,” Licker said. He’s been tweaking a carrot cake/cream cheese frosting pop, and a beet and goat cheese pop. He’s also playing with potential combinations that include peaches and pears.
“I’ve been practicing on a pear and chocolate one. I’ve got a bunch of ideas,” Licker said. “The two I find most successful I’ll probably roll out next year.”
Local cold brew coffee company Let it Ride donates coffee to Chrysalis Pops. Chrysalis showcases the coffee concentrate in the cold brew coffee with salted vanilla pop.
A creamy departure from the fruit-forward flavors, it’s smoothly sweet, light on the salt, and rounded out with an aftertaste of pure vanilla. And yes, this pop is caffeinated, though the exact amount of caffeine is unknown. I can imagine it becoming as habitual as a morning latte.
“When I first came, the cold brew coffee [pop] wasn’t selling very well,” Licker said. “We changed it to ‘cold brew coffee with salted vanilla,’ which sounds a little sexier, and I added a little vanilla, a little salt, added a little maple syrup.
“So there’s maple syrup in that one instead of sugar, and people have really enjoyed them since. ... I had someone tell me the other day that it was one of their top five items they’ve ever eaten, which I thought was an incredible statement.”
Concocting new pops and fine-tuning old favorites is a perk of Licker’s position, but he believes that the most fulfilling part of his job is the mission.
“It’s amazing to see people’s lives transformed through work,” he said. “I’ve gotten amazing feedback about how this has been a life-changing experience for (our clients) … it’s been very successful in terms of people finding work afterwards, so that’s been rewarding. And then it’s amazing to see people give positive feedback about the product we’re making.”
That feedback includes inspiration for new ways to grow the business. Customers have mentioned that the cucumber mint with lime pop “tastes like a mjoito.” (After tasting this pop, delicately herbaceous with a refreshing and tangy bite, I can confirm.)
“There is no alcohol in it,” Licker said, “but we’ve been thinking about pairing with a local distillery or a bar or something like that to carry them as well. Nothing’s in the works yet, but that’s just one idea.”
Chrysalis Pops is a seasonal program, running from April through September. During that season, employees produce 320 pops a week at FEED Kitchens. The program grew from four employees in 2016 to seven in 2017 and currently employs 12 people.
Since 2016, Chrysalis has sold about 5,000 pops. Licker set a goal of 8,000 pops sold in 2018 with plans to grow, though “we don’t plan to change the model too much.”
Recently, Chrysalis Pops showed up in the freezers at the Willy Street Co-op (East and North). Licker plans to add more wholesale options in addition to catering kids’ birthday parties and office meetings.
Chrysalis Pops pop up at two or three special events per month, including the upcoming Parks and Trails Unite event on Saturday, June 2, the city of Madison’s Ride the Drive on Sunday, June, 3, AtwoodFest in July and the Willy Street Fair in September. Appearing at festivals and farmers’ markets furthers the overall goal of Chrysalis.
As I headed home with a handful of pops for later, I asked Bunch about her experience with Chrysalis Pops thus far. She’s thrilled to have the job, having been unemployed for well over a year before finding work with Chrysalis Pops.
Bunch said she enjoys meeting and greeting customers at the market. She likes Chrysalis as an employer.
“They’re always listening to us,” she said.
Licker hopes Madison is listening, too.
“The more pops we sell, the more people can learn about the Chrysalis mission and expand Chrysalis outreach,” Licker said. “We want as many people to eat our pops as possible.”