By Laura McAlister
Jim Watkins is giving a childhood favorite a new, grown-up taste.
In his Homewood popsicle shop, Steel City Pops, you won’t find the dull flavors of the past. Instead of grape and orange, this shop has hibiscus, strawberry balsamic and pineapple jalapeno. If it’s something creamy you crave, there’s always avocado or chocolate chile.
The shop opened in May, and since then, people have been lining up out the door waiting to taste one of Jim’s frozen treats.
“We open at noon, and after that there’s kind of a line out the door until we close,” he said. “I’m super thankful. I couldn’t have written a better story. It couldn’t have been better.”
The story actually starts when Jim turned 40.
He was working at a local church when that milestone birthday arrived, and he asked himself, “Is this really what I want to do?”
The answer, he determined, was simply no, it wasn’t. Making his next move would be a little more complicated.
He consulted with his pastor and decided to leave his job. The husband and father of four had some money in savings, so he decided to take some time off and figure out what he really wanted to do with his career.
The more he thought about it, the more he returned to his longtime dream: owning a restaurant. He just didn’t know if it was really feasible.
“I don’t have a background in food,” he said. “I have a degree in music from Baylor (University). I didn’t think I could do a full-scale restaurant, but I thought maybe I could handle just dessert.”
That’s what reminded Jim of a family trip to Nashville, Tenn., where they treated themselves to dessert at a popsicle shop.
He had his idea; now he just needed a little real-life experience. That’s where longtime friend and owner of Dreamcakes Bakery Jan Moon came in to help.
“I asked her if I could kind of shadow her and learn the business side,” Jim said. “She was so gracious and a great mentor. I worked with her for about six months.”
In addition to learning the restaurant business, Jim also had to learn how to create a popsicle that would keep customers returning for more.
He said he and his mother, Sandra Watkins, worked together to create the unique flavors that are now sold at Steel City Pops.
“We got together and would play with flavors and consistencies,” he said. “The first month was really hard. We didn’t have the consistency, but after about two and a half months, we felt we got it, so we held a tasting party with our friends to get their feedback.”
The response was positive. Friends loved the unique flavor combinations that used fresh, local ingredients. Jim said all his pops are made with either 100 percent natural or organic ingredients. When available, they also utilize local ingredients. For example, the coffee popsicle uses coffee from Primavera Coffee Roasters, a Cahaba Heights company.
With a tasty collection of pops ready, Jim now needed a spot for his shop. He wanted it to be near Birmingham, a city he’s grown to love since moving here after he graduated from college. The name, Steel City Pops, after all is a nod to the city’s steel industry.
When Jim happened to pass by the small storefront on Homewood’s Central Avenue near the new Little Donkey restaurant, he thought it was perfect for several reasons. It was close to downtown. It would attract lots of foot traffic from Homewood’s nearby Central Park as well as Little Donkey. Also, Central Avenue is just a special place for Jim and wife Amy.
“My wife and I were engaged in Central Park,” he said. “Then, our first apartment was on Central Avenue. When we saw Little Donkey was now here, we thought, this is perfect. It’s not really been too developed here until recently.”
The shop is small with only about 1,200 square feet but has proven to be ideal for the popsicle shop. He wanted the shop, like its name, to pay homage to Birmingham. Local artist Lydia Poore painted a mural of the Birmingham skyline and Vulcan on one wall, and the decor has an industrial feel with steel accents. Reclaimed wood came from local Evolutia.
Most customers eat their frozen treats outside the shop or in nearby Central Park, Jim said. He also has a couple of vending carts so people in other parts of Birmingham can enjoy the popsicles. He posts the locations daily on Facebook and Twitter.
While Steel City Pops is still in its first few months of business, Jim already has plans for growth. He’s working to add a location in Tuscaloosa – which, yes, will still be called Steel City Pops – and during the winter, when he suspects business to slow some, he’ll be working on some new, exotic flavors.
“I really want to continue to create new flavors,” he said. “We’ll have some staples, but I really want our menu to be a reflection of what is fresh and current in culinary trends. I want to play with some herbs, maybe something savory.
“I’d also like to offer sugar-free or maybe some for folks working out and doing the juice cleansing. We want to help people accomplish their goals with their diet.”
When it comes to helping people, Steel City Pops is also doing its part, but not through its frozen treats. The shop sells Provide bottled water, which gives 100 percent of its profits to NeverThirst.
“I think that’s the most important product we sell,” Jim said. “For every pallet of water we sell, they build a clean-water well in India.”
Steel City Pops
Where: 2821 Central Ave. (Check Facebook and Twitter for vending cart locations)
Hours: Noon-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; noon-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Monday