What’s 44 years old, four countries wide, and comes in more than 30 flavors?
For any Costa Rican, it’s a no-brainer: POPS, the premium ice cream company that, since its founding in 1968, has found a way to become a multinational success with an increasingly diversified product line while maintaining its roots as a Costa Rican institution.
According to president Carlos Abreu, American Ice Cream S.A., the company that runs POPS, has also managed to maintain an unmatched level of quality while expanding to a total of 110 locations in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
“POPS was created with the idea of offering a premium-quality ice cream to Costa Ricans,” Abreu said. “Today, many companies have adopted the word ‘premium’ because it sounds good, but it doesn’t have the quality.”
The company spent its first 35 years focusing on ice-cream parlors alone, Abreu said. However, in the past three years, it has diversified its offerings: it now sells its ice cream in supermarkets and is the distributor for the U.S.-based company General Mills (including brands such as Betty Crocker, Nature Valley and Pillsbury).
It is also the franchisee for ice-cream company Häagen-Dazs. While this alliance may seem an unlikely one, given that the two company’s products are competitors, Abreu said, “It’s clear that POPS is one thing and Häagen-Dazs is another.”
Approximately one year ago, the company opened the sandwich shops Entrepans – sometimes connected to a POPS ice-cream parlor, but usually separate – which offer pressed and pita sandwiches, among other lunchtime options.
Despite these forays into other areas, the company plans to concentrate on strengthening its hold on its existing Central American markets, Abreu said.
“This is a group that has been completely concentrated on foods,” he said. “That’s our core business. That’s what we know how to do… and we believe there is still room within (our current markets) for expansion.”
He added he is confident about the company’s potential to succeed in the increasingly competitive market.
“We did an analysis (of its possible effects), and we don’t feel vulnerable or at risk,” he said. “We have created a name for ourselves. No one could take this market away from us easily.”
“Ice cream was left out of CAFTA, but it would give us the possibility to grow in the United States with greater agility,” he said.
The Central American Customs Union under consideration “would facilitate everything a great deal,” he said, since the company’s Costa Rican plant exports products to Nicaragua and Honduras, while its smaller Guatemalan plant supplies products to El Salvador.
Though POPS is 100% Costa Rican owned and was founded by Costa Rican entrepreneurs, the concepts that inspired its ice-cream parlors, as well as its Entrepans sandwich shops, came from abroad.
Entrepans is based on a Spanish model, according to Abreu, while an advisor from the United States laid the foundations for POPS ice cream. The entrepreneurs who founded the company hired a U.S. business executive for a year to advise them.
Before that, there was no such thing as a “premium” Costa Rican ice cream, he said – a category that means the product his high in solids, low in air, for a creamier texture than most “commercial” ice creams.
The first POPS parlor, still open today, is near La Sabana Park in western San José. There are now 44 shops throughout Costa Rica. The parlor with the best location, according to Abreu, is on Ave. Central in the Gran Hotel Costa Rica building, which last year was declared an historical and architectural heritage site. The two-level shop, facing the Culture Plaza and near the National Theater, is ideally suited for attracting tourists, he said. A three-year-old renovation effort for all POPS parlors included see-through cabinets and a more modern look.
POPS began expanding to other Central American countries after only two years of operation – first to El Salvador, then to Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras.
“If it wasn’t the first regional Central American company, it was among the first,” Abreu said, mentioning Guatemala ‘s Pollo Campero, along with the airline TACA and Banco Cuscatlán, both based in El Salvador, as among the only other high-profile, Central America-wide businesses.
The company’s name, which has no special significance, was chosen, along with its four colors, to signify happiness, he added.
Through the years, POPS has straddled the breach between innovation and tradition, offering newly popular flavors such as cappuccino, pistachio and chocolate-almond, while continuing to sell products such as the Churchill, a traditional drink from the central Pacific port city of Puntarenas.
“One needs to pause in life – ‘give yourself time, give yourself pleasure,’” he said, quoting POPS’ motto. “The quality of POPS hasn’t changed over the years. We are very demanding in the selection of our ingredients. That’s why people are faithful to our products.”