When you walk in the door of Helados Pops, expect the person behind the counter to introduce themselves by name. There are no nametags here and there are no recipes. This is by design so that you'll be encouraged to ask questions and try flavors that might have otherwise remained a mystery.
Owners Marthin Ken and Addie Perez-Ken are focused on making a personal experience for their ice cream customers and it’s working. Marthin’s poetic verbal descriptions of their flavors are an education in themselves. Helados Pops has already gained entrance into prestigious local events and comparisons with the likes of Salt & Straw. Their success is due to innovation, hard work and some serendipitous family history.
Marthin says "we don't use any recipes; nature has no recipes. No two strawberries or two watermelons are the same." Because there are no recipes and the ingredients are all natural, each batch has to be tested and coaxed into perfection using guidelines and adjustments. How do staff ensure perfection? Marthin says there are "no measuring cups in that place; we just give it what it needs." He suggests people embrace different textures as a way of learning what they're eating, warning "if you go to an ice cream shop and you have the same texture across the board, that's flavoring out of a bottle. There's no way strawberries and milk, avocados and milk, or banana and milk should be the same."
Here are some of the flavors of ice cream and vegan sorbet at Helados Pops: Raw cacao, spiced cucumber, chamoy, mamey, almond and avocado, horchata, roasted cashew fruit, soursop, pumpkin and lucuma, which could be called the founding flavor. As much as possible, they work with local farmers, import the rest frozen and estimate that 90 percent of the fruit is organic.
While Marthin and Addie have brought a new touch and directly sourced ingredients, most of the recipes at Helados Pops were created by Addie’s father Oscar Perez many years ago. Oscar moved from El Salvador as an accountant, when the ice cream businesses were originally his clients. Seeking a career change, a curious Oscar reviewed the books, bought the business, and brought in premium ingredients and unusual fruit. He made the jump from crunching numbers to crunching fruits with zero background in food.
If you’ve had lucuma ice cream at a Peruvian restaurant in L.A., Marthin says there’s a decent chance it was bought wholesale from Oscar’s business, which was called Helado Pops. If you have no idea what lucuma is, Helados Pops is the right place to ask such questions. Here’s Marthin’s description of a lucuma fruit: “What an orange avocado would look like, and flavorwise very similar to pecan or pistachio with a butterscotch aftertaste.” He likes to educate clients about all the ingredients and fruits, such as the roasted cashew fruit: “Probably 90 percent of people don’t know that a cashew fruit is the size of a bell pepper and the seed we eat is the nut that grows on the outside.”
Setting up in San Fernando
When Marthin and Addie met in 2006, they would go on dates to have ice cream at her father's shop. When the 2008 recession set in the shop faltered and by early 2010 it was closed. Meanwhile, Marthin and Addie were married with two children and were happy to have Oscar spending time with his grandkids. But when they thought about his ice cream, they saw he was getting older "and we didn't want to lose how special his recipes were." In 2015 they decided to put the store back on its feet, rebranded as Helados Pops.
Choosing a location was one of their most difficult business decisions. Because they are a family business, they wanted a neighborhood that would reflect these values and settled on San Fernando. Marthin said that while many new shops would go to Abbot Kinney or Silver Lake, “I really thought it would be nice to be that business on the block before gentrification, to anticipate growth. San Fernando has the potential, the layout.” Several businesses have since come into the area, including San Fernando Brewing Co, which joined Helados Pops at Masters of Taste in Pasadena. Of 40 top places to eat in L.A., Marthin and Addie were proud to have two businesses at the event representing San Fernando.
The community extends beyond the neighborhood via their Instagram and other social media. When their shop window was smashed last fall, they were touched by the community reactions. When it was discovered the person had mental health issues, they decided to raise awareness about that issue as a positive community effort.
Ice cream in the family tree
Like Oscar, Marthin didn’t have a background in food, but fate and love were putting it in his path. When Marthin called his mother to announce the Helados Pops project, she wasn’t the least bit surprised. She told him, “It’s in your blood; Sometimes things are meant to be.” Then she told him his great great grandfather named Romulo Caraccioli was a traveling salesman from Italy who married in Belize and became an ice cream maker and baker. Romulo’s recipe for sugar corn ice cream is available in Helados Pops now. To get it exactly right, Marthin called his grandfather, who later flew down from the Bay Area to taste test.
This first peek into family history started an obsession in Marthin, who wanted to source the finest quality local ingredients and look into the origins of the fruits that come so easily to L.A. He started by researching coconut because "it's not a Hawaiian flavor, they're really global." Another research dive into soursop led him to study Chinese medicine and explore the worldwide uses: "It grows in 50 different countries with 50 different names!"
Lucuma and soursop are two of the most exotic fruits in the shop, but there are much more that will be new to clients or in new combinations. The mamey fruit is very popular in Cuba, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Here's Marthin's description of mamey: "Papaya-like in texture with a flavor of sweet potato pumpkin."
Social media driving innovation
Social media, especially Instagram, has been a great communication and PR tool for Helados Pops because it brings people in from all over. Marthin manages the shop's social media accounts himself and is happy to see how often customers post photos and ask questions. Their signature coconut sundae was the first social media success and came out of a photoshoot as a happy accident. They were taking photos with local foodies and had cracked a coconut open to put next to the ice cream shot when Marthin realized it would look really nice to serve the ice cream in the coconut. But that wasn't enough.
Marthin spent most of his childhood in Belize, where one of his chores for his mother was to core out coconuts with a tool that removes the flesh. Thinking back to this, he realized the coring tool could be used to make coconut shavings, and give the experience of eating the young flesh out of the organic and biodegradable shell. He found one of the same coring tools from his youth and the hit sundae was born: coconut shavings in the coconut shell, topped with ice cream. They now do the same with pineapple.
Marthin and Addie still have their full-time jobs at Kaiser Los Angeles Medical Center. Marthin had spent the day in orthopedic surgery before this interview, and while their two daughters played in the background, he recounted how just minutes before they had realized it was their nine year wedding anniversary.
“It’s the complete family effort,” he says, “one of us has to go to the shop and one has to stay home. The kids are in the back office, they know the rules, and my wife takes them out for a walk to visit the cupcake shop or the park. We’re side by side, cracking coconuts.”
In addition to their hard work and innovation, it's the recipes from around the world, spanning generations, which make this small business thrive. Marthin sums it up: "The world put two ice cream families from two different countries together."
Top Image: Tropical Fruit World | Alan Levin | Flickr | CC 2.0