ATLANTA — The line of people in the sweltering gas station parking lot grows longer as the sun beats down. They aren't here for gas.
One-by-one, each person steps up to a small cart festooned with a multicolored umbrella and is handed what they've all come miles to get — what they probably have been craving all day: a frozen pop.
And not the red, purple and orange sugary pops from childhood, either. These sweets are full of unexpected ingredients like cardamom, cilantro, lavender and ginger. They're iced tea mixed with lemonade — called an Arnold Palmer — or banana pudding with chunks of vanilla wafers.
Meet the King of Pops, as he's known to the throngs of people who stop by his cart in Atlanta each week to buy ice pops loaded with fresh fruit in delectable combinations. Some show up with out-of-town guests, while other bring coolers full of dry ice so they can tote dozens home.
"My favorite thing right now is talking to everyone," said Steven Carse, 26, who started the King of Pops cart last year when he was laid off from his job as an analyst with AIG in suburban Atlanta.
"Everyone's usually pretty excited, or at least in a good mood, if they're coming to get a popsicle," he said. "You don't get too many people that are super mad at the world, so you get people at their best instead of their worst."
First, there was the cupcake. Then, the doughnut. Now, fancy frozen pops — both purchased and homemade — are taking their turn as the favorite sweet treat of adults looking for a little nostalgia and some tongue-tingling flavors.
Pop shops from Austin, Texas, to Nashville, Tenn., to Brooklyn, N.Y., have developed cult followings, while carts have become staples in farmers markets in Portland, Oregon and Los Angeles.
Shoppers at Williams-Sonoma, Bed, Bath & Beyond and Target can pick up an array of pop molds, from rocket ships to rabbits. And daring cooks can select recipes from several recent cookbooks or from dozens of recipes available online at sites such as Epicurious.com.
"It's just so easy to make and so refreshing," said Tanya Wenman Steel, editor-in-chief of Epicurious, which has seen a spike in the number of searches for pop recipes this year. "There's definitely that harkening back to that time when all you had to do on a lazy, hot day was throw a ball and eat a popsicle."
In Raleigh, N.C., Summer Bicknell at Locopops dishes out treats for humans and dogs, serving up frozen beef and chicken stock with a rawhide stick for the critters while their owners munch on pops made with white chocolate, peanut butter and plum.
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"I hope that it's not just a trend," said Bicknell, who quit her corporate job and opened Locopops in 2005. "Popsicles have a wonderful thing in that they're current and they're also nostalgic, which is kind of neat. We strive on our menu to have a little something for everybody."
Locopops now has stores in Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh, with carts at the University of North Carolina and Duke University during the school year. Flavors include bacon, hot sauce and chili peppers.
"You don't really find those in the grocery store in the freezer section," said Nick Popio, 31, who was eating in Locopops' Raleigh store on a recent afternoon with his girlfriend.
Whole Foods Markets stores in Austin and Houston carry Goodpops, which are made by Manuel Flores and his wife at their Austin shop that opened last year. The treats, fashioned after Mexican paletas with bright colors and strong flavors, are full of organic fruit and natural ingredients because Flores said that's what he is comfortable feeding his family.
"We'll pay a premium for a product that's good for our kids," Flores said. "Old things seems to repeat themselves. For a long time people have forgotten about popsicles and how fun they could be and what you can do with them."
For Carse, who started his Atlanta business in March and now sells nearly 2,000 pops a week, the sky is the limit. He's booked for two weddings this fall and gets calls about catering corporate events across the city.
His customers line up, sometimes half an hour before he opens at 3 p.m., to get the popular flavors, such as blackberry mojito and Georgia peach. On a recent day, a group of friends met up in the parking lot where he sets up each day to hang out and try some new flavors.
"He's making something very unique and something that's a necessity because of how freaking hot this summer has been," said Matt Vaughn, 28, a musician from Atlanta. "People want to buy in to something original and local."
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