podcast Podetize

The Story Of Pete’s Pops: From Serving Pops In His Kitchen To One Of MKE’s Favorite Brands With Pete Cooney

The Story Of Pete’s Pops: From Serving Pops In His Kitchen To One Of MKE’s Favorite Brands With Pete Cooney

Pete’s Pops has been all over the news (and streets of the Milwaukee area) this year. With the announcement of “Sneaky Pete’s” recently opening at…

Pete’s Pops has been all over the news (and streets of the Milwaukee area) this year. With the announcement of “Sneaky Pete’s” recently opening at the Milwaukee Public Market, their four brick-and-mortar locations, fifteen pop carts roaming around the area, and their expansion to St. Louis (Pete’s hometown) last year, it’s clear that business has never been hotter – erm — chillier — for this Milwaukee-favorite pop shop. All that said, Pete’s Pops is far from an overnight success story. 

Believe it or not, I was one of the first to try these legendary pops. Pete Cooney served me one of the original Pete’s Pops out of a dixie cup in the kitchen of his East Side apartment about eight years ago, back when he was a full-time corporate accountant. Pete’s Pops was a side hustle for Pete until the start of 2021, his last job being the Controller for the Pabst Group.  

Although Pete’s Pops has grown significantly since Pete started making Pops, his passion and excitement for the business haven’t gone away: “Something about this concept resonated with me; it made me excited, it made me happy… Our business is happiness and positivity, it’s just a really great business, and I’m thankful it’s what I chose,” Pete said fondly on this episode of The GoGedders. For the company’s future, Pete predicts an expansion of the current business model and a potential consumer packaged goods (CPG) play down the road.

For more on Pete’s story and what it took to get the business to where it is today, listen in to the full episode.

Listen to the podcast here

I’ve got a long-time friend on the show, Pete Cooney. Welcome.

It’s good to be here.

It’s good to see you. It’s been a little while. He is the Founder of Pete’s Pops, which I’m sure you’ve heard of. He is an accountant turned popsicle mogul with several pop carts locations in the Milwaukee area, as well as the newly opened Sneaky Pete’s at the Milwaukee public market. As of 2021, he has a presence in his hometown St. Louis. He also went to college at Marquette at the same time as me. We had good times back then. He is an elite basketball player here in the city of Milwaukee.

This is going to be a great episode for anyone who is a fan of Pete’s Pops, any entrepreneur or anyone who has a side hustle or a side business that they aspire to turn into a full-time business someday. Pete, you spent essentially seven years growing this business before making the leap full time while working a full-time corporate job. It was a while. I got to see it from conception, but I’ve always admired how hard you went at things while having a full-time job. I think there are a lot of good lessons in here for any entrepreneur, but especially those who are hustling on the side with the dream of turning it into a full-time gig sometime.

There are definitely a lot of lessons from that. Sometimes I wish that I jumped off sooner. Doing that as a side project allows you to do things for the right reasons and get where you see it going.

We’ll get into that. I remember being at your place on Farwell in 2013-ish when you were serving popsicles out of your kitchen. I was one of the initial Pete’s Pops taste testers. How did this concept go about? How did you take it from making stuff for your friends in your kitchen to the business it is now or a legitimate brand as step one?

Thinking back on those years, making popsicles in Dixie cups for my friends are some good memories. I wanted to do this thing. I was working a corporate job. Like a lot of people, the idea of starting my own business was exciting and intriguing. I have a passion for food. The second I learned of similar concepts around the country, it resonated with me. I wanted to do it. I didn’t know how to start so I started by messing around in my kitchen and joking with my friends. I did that for a long time.

I remember after a year or so of that, I didn’t know how serious I was. Was this going to be a business? Was this going to be a weird thing I joked around about? I remember getting annoyed that I was talking about it and making people laugh and think about it, but I wasn’t doing anything. One day, I said, “I either need to stop talking about this thing or I need to do it.” I started with modest goals and expectations, but I just wanted to have fun and give it a shot.

What was holding you back from putting it out in the marketplace and going from serving popsicles out of Dixie cups in your kitchen to your buddies that came over? Was there any fear that you would look goofy for starting the popsicle business? What was going through your head?

There was a lot of that. It is a goofy thing. Especially when this concept didn’t exist in Milwaukee, my friends, family and connections knew me as corporate accounting and corporate finance guy. To all of a sudden be talking about this popsicle business came out of the left field. I was nervous about looking goofy. It was a confidence thing. I’m glad that I put myself out there. I dealt with people that certainly didn’t get it and thought it was goofy and snickered. One of my favorite life lessons is working through that and not caring, and doing what I knew I wanted to do and what I believed in. That’s one of my favorite things I’ve learned in the last few years.

That’s not easy to create a product from scratch and put it out in the world and not care what people think about it. People care too much and it holds people back, or they get in their own head when it’s like, “Put something out there, see how the market responds and go from there.” What was the first moment when you were like, “This could be something.”

The year I was going to launch it, I rented a commercial kitchen and got fully licensed. It was in 2014. It’s crazy. Our Saturday sales are now more than my entire year of sales in that first year. It started so small and so modest. I remember very vividly when I got a license, rented a kitchen, and had a friend mock-up a logo for me. One night on my couch, I created a Twitter profile and put our logo up as our handle picture that no one had ever seen. I followed like all the Milwaukee food people I knew. I followed the writer from the Journal Sentinel, Carol Deptolla. I followed Lori Fredrich.

I followed some restaurants and chefs that I liked. I tweeted, “Pops coming soon” or “See you out there,” or something simple. We can go figure out what it was. I woke up the next morning with a DM from Lori Fredrich, Carol Deptolla, and Jeff Sherman. Everyone was like, “What is this? Who are you? What are you about to do?” That was a cool unexpected thing. The answer to those questions was, “I didn’t know what I was about to do.”

The Twitter handle came before recipes, any sales or a plan. That was one simple, exciting, easy, early win to keep me going. For me, it was always about things that would happen that would keep you going. A lot of stuff would knock you down or scare you to keep going. Those wins go in and you feel so good. You’re motivated to keep working.

It’s interesting thinking back, especially where you are now. I can think back on my entrepreneurial journey, someone you admire or look up to like responding to your message. It’s crazy how much those things can mean to you, especially in those early years. Why popsicles? I know a bit about your backstory. Can you talk about what made you get into the popsicle business of all things as opposed to some other food items?

One reason is that I wanted to start my own business and get into the food world, but I didn’t have a ton of money. I’m not a classically trained chef. I thought I could pull off this concept with the limited amount of money I had to start a business and a limited number of skills. I thought I could figure it out. Another deeper answer is something about this concept resonated with me. It made me excited and happy.

It’s hard to tell how much I feel this way now versus back then, but now I love the business so much. It’s all happiness, families, kids and positivity. Our product allows us because it’s frozen and there’s no waste. We can say yes to all events. We don’t say yes to events based if we’re going to make money or not. We say yes to events that we want to do and can do. It has allowed me to do a lot of community engagement-type stuff. I can donate a lot of products. It’s a great business and I’m thankful that it’s what I chose.

There was nothing like it in Milwaukee when you started it. I know you saw some people doing similar things in other states. You were like, “I could be that guy here,” essentially.

The other thing I remember as I was trying to justify launching this business was that I know Milwaukee has a short summer season with warm weather. That’s good for consuming popsicles and ice cream. I also recognize that when summer is here, people are going nuts. There are street festivals and music festivals. People are out enjoying the weather. I do remember that was a big justification for me launching it.

I knew that if you put it out there, even if it’s for only three months, there are going to be a lot of activities and interest in those three months. Especially as a side business, it was perfect for me. I wanted to spend my summers doing this thing on nights and weekends, having fun and not embarrassing myself, and hopefully make a little bit of money. That was the goal.

You guys won that Near West Side Partners Competition. Did that legitimize things for you and give you that push to open your first brick and mortar store?

We won the competition. It did legitimize everything a little bit. We won a little bit of money. Part of the competition was these businesses were saying they wanted to move into this Near West Side neighborhood, and I did. I believed in the mission. I still do have Near West Side Partners that were very involved. Once we won, I said I was going to do something and now I have to do it.

When I was on my own, it was all about whether do I want to work hard or not. If I took a weekend off or didn’t sign a lease for a new place, it was on me. I could go at whatever pace I wanted. The second we won that competition, it felt like other people in organizations were beholden to my decisions. I said, “I was going to move my business,” and felt like I had to make good by my word.

You guys have obviously grown. You have the new store in Dallas. You got Bayview and still got Near West Side. You’ve expanded a bit to St. Louis and now Sneaky Pete’s at the public market. Can you touch on that?

Sneaky Pete’s is going to be a lot of fun. It wasn’t in the plans for 2022 originally, but it’s been floating around in the background for a while. For years, people have been coming up and asking us for alcoholic pops. We had a stand-in Miller Park in 2019 and we did okay. We didn’t do amazing, but every single person was like, “Do you have booze? Do you have alcohol?” It got to the point where it was obnoxious. At a certain point, if everyone is asking for it, it’s probably a good idea. You’ll have customers that are already telling you that’s what they want. For me, I never wanted Pete’s Pops because it’s such a family-friendly brand.

I didn’t want to roll out the alcohol stuff from that brand. I always thought that an aside cousin brand was the way to go. I had some friends who mentioned Sneaky Pete’s and we all laughed. For years, it’s been like, “If we will ever do the alcoholic thing, it’s got to be Sneaky Pete’s.” In 2022, the public market reached out to us probably in May. I didn’t think we could do it. I thought we were too busy. We were having staffing issues. I was dragging my feet, hemming and hawing.

I don’t know what happened but one day, Paul from the public market called me one last time and I said, “Yes.” We went from agreeing to signing the deal, to designing everything, to an opening in two weeks, which is insane. It’s open Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sundays from 12:00 to market close, which is 8:00 most days and 6:00 on Sundays through the summer.

We’ll do seasonal and serve two flavors of alcoholic slushies. We’re calling one the Coffee Blaster. It’s a coffee, creamy, bourbon brandy drink. We shake fresh espresso grounds on top. It’s like a boozy coffee ice cream drink. The other one is a watermelon tequila. It’s almost like a margarita slushie. We’re calling that the Salted Watermelon Slushie. We have three pop tails and these will rotate as well. We have a Peach Bellini, which is a peach pop with champagne. Basically, it’s a flute of champagne and a peach pop dunked into it with some frozen raspberries sprinkled on top.

You see what the future of the business looks like. Is it an expansion of what you guys are doing now or is it more beyond that?

The answer is both. Right now, we have two platforms. There are two businesses. It’s what we’re doing here in Milwaukee, which is our pop shops, our carts, our catering, and Sneaky Pete’s. That can keep growing. There’s still room to grow in Milwaukee. We want to be in Madison. We want to be in Evanston, Illinois and other markets. You mentioned St. Louis, so that’s a franchise. We’re working that out and figuring out what we do well and what we don’t. These concepts can keep growing in Wisconsin and beyond.

There’s another whether you want to call it platform or business, which is at ground zero. It’s regional and national retail. We want to be in Whole Foods, Costco, and all those places. We need to get our capacity up, our packaging improved, and our costs down. That CPG frozen retail game is so hard and competitive. I have a good plan but it’s going to take some time. Even if we execute the plan perfectly, there’s no guarantee that it will work because it’s a hard space to be in. That’s why it’s nice to have these two arms. That’s what I’m thinking of it as. The one arm is proven to work and we want to keep going. We’re going to give the other thing a good shot.

I don’t know much about that world. They’re getting products. At least you have the brand behind it now and products that people love essentially. Going back to the beginning, I remember in the early years of this, we didn’t see each other much unless it was playing basketball. You were working your day job and you’re usually in the kitchen at night making pops. On the weekends, you were doing all that. Can you talk about the hustle and the work that it took on your end to get this thing to square one?

First of all, you said the word elite earlier, which is a gross over-representation of my basketball skills.

I know you’ve got several banners in the MAC and Player of the Week Awards.

Those were the glory days. I still love the hustle. I don’t love it as much because it does wear you down. I worked all day. The pop stuff was fun. I was figuring it out. Every time I would go to an event and people would respond well to the pops, it gave me life. It was so exciting. Those first couple of years there was a ton of fun. As it grew and more people tried the product and liked it, I got more and more excited. All the events we do are fun events. I was hanging out on Brady Street at the Nomad in my younger days, selling bops and drinking PBR.

It didn’t always feel like work. As it started to grow, having a full-time gig and pizza pops became more challenging. I used to have to talk with my bosses wherever I was working and assure them that I was focused on what I needed to do for them. I never let that job fall short. I did stay focused during the day, then it was all nights and weekends. The last couple of years has been a concerted effort to take some of that hustle out of the business.

 I recognized that it was great. If you want to work hard and you’re passionate about what you’re doing, you can hustle your way to success but in the long term, it’s unsustainable. If you want to have a business that can go for years and years, not only do you need to work a manageable amount but your employees too. You can’t ask your employees to grind it out as you did for years. It has been something that we’ve been trying to focus on the last few years. COVID threw that playbook out the window.

It pushed you into going full-time on this to an extent in a way.

It did. I remember going into 2021, I was working at The Pabst Theater Group as the controller. I loved that job. I got paid well. I was very proud of where Pete’s Pops was. I also loved it but I was definitely sick of working two full-time jobs, both of which were growing each year. I remember going into 2021, and I didn’t have a good plan and mindset. I wasn’t too excited for the season. It felt like it was going to be a lot. When COVID hits Pete’s Pops, I always use the number 90%. I don’t know the exact number, but we basically lost all of our business, all of our weddings.

Miller Park was canceled. Music festivals were canceled, literally almost everything except for our one store at Fleet Street. The Bayview store, we were never planning on doing it. I was walking around Bayview in the morning on a COVID walk, trying to think, “What am I going to do in 2021?” I walked past this place and said, “Maybe this will work. People are going to be out. They don’t have anywhere else to go. These will be walk-up windows that will be safe. I’m going to give it a shot.”

When we got that open and it went well from the start. Simultaneously, I was working for The Pabst. The live music industry got hammered harder than even the food industry during COVID. I felt like I was doing a good job for them, but I knew that they were going to have a long road back. One morning I woke up and said, “You guys need focus and support. I want to focus on my business. I think the best thing for both of us is for me to go full-time to Pete’s Pops.” I gave them six months’ notice. I stayed until the end of the year.

It’s nice for you to give us six months’ notice. Not too many people do that.

I was trying to be nice and do the right thing. I was also scared as hell not to have a paycheck. Part of it was like, “I will keep working.” Now that I have a plan, I can plan accordingly.

What is the best Pete’s Pop flavor?

It changes seasonally for me. I ate a Raspberry Chip Pop that we’ve made. That’s the best one.

What’s the Raspberry Chip Pop?

It’s like raspberry ice cream with dark chocolate chips. I think maybe Coffee and Donuts might be our signature flavor. I would put that up against a lot of stuff and say that it holds up.

Are you going to do a flavor forecast so people know what’s coming?

We are trying to do a better job of communicating the flavors. We have these pretty cute flavor graphics that we’ve been posting in 2022. We don’t have a forecast because what we do is we go to our fruit supplier and get whatever fruit is available to us that week. That is the freshest, the ripest, and the best possible to use. We are pretty nimble. We’re not always looking ahead too far. There are some flavors like we always make Rhubarb Buttermilk in the early spring with local organic grown rhubarb. In late summer, we’ll make a sweet corn flavor that we wait for sweet corn season. We’re doing a Georgia peach from a peach farm in Georgia. There are some that we can forecast.

If you could have only one flavor for the rest of your life, what would it be?

I think I will go with Coffee and Donuts.

One question, you grew up in St. Louis. We went to Marquette around the same time. You’ve integrated well into Milwaukee with your jobs here, starting Pete’s Pops and being involved in the community. I know you guys have given some scholarships to employees and have given back in ways you can. Can you talk about the city and starting a business here?

I love Milwaukee, personally. As far as starting a business, people gave me a shot when they probably shouldn’t have. Those people that I mentioned DM-ed me, and I got to talk to them and have a little article in their publications. I think of Mike Underwood, who has a great event planning business. He plans events for the biggest companies, not only in Wisconsin but all over the country. He booked my first year. I said earlier that our Saturdays do more sales in my entire first year.

What happened in that first year was Mike Underwood, who’s a real big-time event planner, booked us for a company’s corporate party. We did a good job. That alone was the opportunity that we didn’t deserve, but we did a good job, and it kept me going into year two. Milwaukee, in general, is very supportive. If you have an idea or start a business, you’re going to get some media attention that helps. You’re going to get customers that are trying you and then talking about you. I wouldn’t have wanted to start anywhere else.

I felt the same way starting off younger as well. It’s easier to get in front of the right people. I feel like the community supports the community. There were a lot of people that gave me a shot or took a meeting with me that had no business, and that made a big difference.

The size of Milwaukee does a couple of things. It’s small enough that people can hear about you pretty quickly, whether it’s through social media or traditional media, or word of mouth. That’s a good thing but it’s slow enough. You designed our first website. I don’t think we launched our website until year four. I remember I was barely keeping up each year. I kept saying that I don’t want a website just so I could tell people about us. I have to say, “No, we’re barely keeping up.”

The slow-paced measured growth was good for me versus a big city. You can get that viral growth where all of a sudden, your product has aligned down the street and get big boom growth right off the bat. Sometimes I wish Milwaukee had that level of gas in the tank or whatever, where you could go viral. I don’t think we have that. I don’t know if that’s totally possible here but for me who wanted to grow slow and measured, it was perfect.

I’ll end on this. What has been the most rewarding through starting Pete’s Pops?

There’s a lot that’s been rewarding professionally and personally. The first thing that comes into my head is my staff. I have a staff of 35 college kids and adults. We have the best staff. These kids are so amazing. They’ve gone on to do incredible things and I’ve seen them grow up. Some of my staff has started as little kid customers, and they’ve now grown into it. A couple of bad things happened behind the scenes. I had to go into the shop to manage them. The senior-level people knew what was going on. They knew that it was a bad day. We had all these other college-aged and high school-aged kids that were working hard and they had no idea.

I turned around and I was stressed and trying to figure things out. Everyone is busting their butts, smiling and laughing. We have loud music playing. I almost didn’t know that it was that fun in there. I’m not always around anymore. I’m like, “These kids are all having fun. They’re working hard. They work long hours. It’s been rewarding to hire these great people and see them succeed and see where they go off in the world. I enjoy that part.

Thanks for dropping in, Pete.

Important Links