Natasha Alomia used ice cubes as building blocks for her business. It all started two years ago experimenting with them in her home freezer.
The ice burn she endured as she touched thousands of cubes of ice building her business was worth it. Thirteen months later, it led to a R1 million ($75,700) empire built on champagne popsicles.
She spent months testing and tasting frozen sparkling wines, to see if her idea to make popsicles out of wine would be a hit on retail shelves and cooler boxes.
“I was overseas on business and walked into a department store in London and I saw their own brand of popsicles. I phoned my business partner and said let’s make it ourselves. I got back to South Africa, bought 10 different brands of champagne and wine and literally experimented on my stove playing with water levels and fructose levels. At one stage, my entire freezer was filled with varying sizes of ice cube samples. Some tasted great in liquid form, but horrible when frozen,” says Alomia.
Her bubbly idea was something South Africans have never seen before – frozen champagne popsicles. An idea so simple, you would think someone had thought of it before.
The pops come in two flavors – Cap Classique and Tranquille. A special tube, imported from overseas, is filled with the champagne syrup and sent through an accelerated freezer, a process the resourceful Alomia learned first-hand in her own freezer.
“I remember having dry ice burns on my fingers two weeks after the launch and going to breakfast with a friend of mine, and there he is having to cut my breakfast because I couldn’t hold the fork. You must be willing to do all it takes.
“It brings out your inner child. Everyone remembers as a kid having your popsicle and loving them and this is a lolly to make you jolly when you are a grown-up.”
Alomia studied Marketing Strategy at Bond University before completing a Master’s in Queensland, Australia. She worked in London as a marketing manager at a corporate interior design firm, before coming home to put her entrepreneurial skills to test.
In South Africa, she teamed up with her business partner Jon-Marc de Carvalho, who she met while studying overseas, and formed JML Consulting, which is where she began looking to bring in overseas products that could fill South Africa’s growing luxury food market.
The pair tried importing coconut water as well as a line of high-quality protein snacks. Both flopped.
“We were doing this on the side. Looking for the next thing. The minute we started working on the popsicles, this became the focus,” says Alomia.
Together, they poured R3 million ($227,000) into the popsicle concept, which included buying a R1 million ($75,700) industrial ice cream maker. The 33-year-old Alomia recalls the investment was like jumping off a cliff and building a parachute on the way down.
“People were saying ‘what are you thinking producing this luxury product in this economy’. I’d be lying if I didn’t say there weren’t any challenges. This isn’t Europe or the United States where you launch a product and because of the way the land lies, 80% of the population will buy it. Here you literally appeal to 10% of the entire population of the country.”
Thousands of ice cubes later, they had found a wine that was both elegant and delicious from the Pierre Jourdan cellar at Haute Cabrière in Franschhoek in Cape Town. The cellar master sold them 12,000 liters of wine and they were off.
“If you are going to do something no one has ever done before and lead with a brand, there is no half-baked measures. You have to do things right. We didn’t want to go to market with something on a stick. We wanted it to say premium,” says Alomia.
It hasn’t always been easy. Alomia has also had her fair share of frosty encounters; her most memorable was with a senior executive from a large corporation.
“He sat across from the desk and said ‘this will never work, girlie’. My business partner grabbed my leg under the table. I said ‘sir, with all due respect, you are not the target demographic, and second, I am telling you it will work’… we launched, and 10 months later, he called back and now he wanted it.”
A liquor license was also a challenge. The popsicles never existed before, so there was no legislation around it. It took months to dot the Is and cross the Ts.
“When we launched, I had pretty much every liquor board in the country phoning me asking if it was legal. You don’t go through 13 months of development working with a national retailer, who literally makes you jump through flaming hoops backwards, only to not make sure on the most important thing you are not covered.”
Things got even more challenging when Alomia’s first delivery melted, costing them R50,000 ($3,800).
“I’ve cried over these popsicles. It was a week before the launch. It was soul destroying. When you are a big brand that just gets absorbed into a wastage budget line. When you are dealing with thousands of human beings responsible for a cold chain, you just need one person to leave open the freezer door and you can lose half your stock. It can break your heart.”
She sucked it up and six months into the business, Alomia is feeling the fresh cool whiff of success.
She is building her growing popsicle empire one ice cube at a time.