Tuesday, August 6, 2019

[POPPED OUT] Steel City Pops Puts Decatur Kitchen & Shop Up For Sale

Steel City Pops is looking to exit the Atlanta market.  The Birmingham-based gourmet popsicle business entered the metro Atlanta market in 2017, at first with carts in both Atlantic Station and The Shops Buckhead Atlanta, and later their "Kitchen" store in Decatur.  The 3,500 square foot Decatur outpost, situated just off the square at 312 Church Street, opened in late September 2017.  Jim Watkins opened his first Steel City Pops in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood in May 2012.  

Local restaurant brokerage The Shumacher Group published a leasing flyer early Tuesday that Decatur area publication Decaturish first reported on.  The listing, which does not hide the fact that it's for the Steel City Pops location in Decatur, indicates that about $500,000 was spent to build out the space for the popsicle shop and production facility.  The state-of-the-art build-out with large production kitchen, furniture, fixtures, "some" ice pop making equipment and 2,000 gallon grease trap, is being offered for $250,000.  It should also be noted that monthly rent on the space is $10,280.87 with a ten year lease in place and two five-year options to renew.  

The listing invites interested parties to convert the space into any "restaurant, cafe, desserts, retail, bar, or brewpub."

Chef Guy Wong of Ponce City Market's Ton Ton and Miso Ko, had in 2013 confirmed plans to open Big Boss Chinese in the space where Steel City Pops eventually opened.  Wong did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening, but given his two projects in Ponce City Market and upcoming eatery Ruby Chow's across the street from the Old Fourth Ward development, his interest in Decatur has likely waned.  

ToNeTo Atlanta reported July 26 that Steel City Pops had abandoned plans to open a "satellite" shop at the new Reynoldstown project Madison Yards.  Instead, developer Fuqua Development signed a lease with local ice cream shop Four Fat Cows to open in the space.  Robyn Thompson, co-founder and CEO of Four Fat Cows, when asked Tuesday for comment on their interest in the Steel City space, indicated she had no interest in the space as it was too big [and too costly] for their current needs.

Steel City Pops at a media event at the Decatur location 
King of Pops, Atlanta's hometown popsicle, and one that was previously offered via a cart in the Decatur Square, is likely also not interested in the space given both its capacity [they operate their own large format production facility on Decatur Street near Sweet Auburn] and their strained relationship with the City of Decatur.  We won't go into the details here, but there was so much drama that Decaturish spread their reporting over a three part series.  If you have the time, it's worth a read. 

The unfortunate reality for Steel City Pops is that even though they offered creative flavors [dairy free avocado, horchata, blueberry basil etc.], employed nice folks, did community events, donated product, hosted media events, and had a great [some might say superior] product, the community's love for and support of King of Pops was too great a challenge for them to overcome.  

Some comparisons can be drawn between the struggles Steel City Pops experienced and the issues that led to the closures of burrito joints like Blue Coast Burrito, Mojo Burrito and Lime Fresh Mexican Grill.  Each chain, popular in their home markets of Nashville, Chattanooga and South Florida, respectively, all entered the Atlanta market hoping to replicate the success of their home markets.  

In each case, the chains failed and closed soon after, exemplified most recently by Blue Coast's closure on Northside Drive this past December after about a year in business.  While some business owners may be blind to the realities of the market, Atlantans tend to support local businesses [Willy's Mexicana Grill, Bell Street Burritos and yes, even Atlanta-born but now mega chain Moe's Southwest Grill] over out-of-town options, even if in some cases, those options are superior.   

Comments on the Decaturish facebook page in response to the new Steel City news varied in tone, but many seemed, dare we say, "pleased" by the closure.  

"Oh no. That's awful," said no one with an actual soul." 
"Don’t let the steel door hit you in the ass on the way out of town..." 
"All Hail King of Pops!"
Others, though few, came to the shop's defense and even professed their love for the Birmingham-based business.
"Steel didn’t do anything wrong but the city did. Y’all some mean ass “peace” lovers SMDH." 
"Oh no. My son is gonna be devastated. That’s his favorite after-school spot." 
"That's a shame because their pops are far superior to King of Pops"

Jack Roberson, formerly "Unit Lead Atlanta," led Steel City's entrance into Atlanta.  Roberson left Steel City this past November to pursue a career with Chick-fil-A, where he hopes to one day open his own location.  Watkins, to whom we spoke at an opening event held at the Decatur outpost, modeled his company and its culture after that of Atlanta's Chick-fil-A.  

The Decatur location has no plans to close ahead of the sale but Steve Josovitz with the Shumacher Group tells ToNeTo Atlanta that he has already had several restaurateurs express interest in the space.  If and when Steel City Pops does close in Decatur, they will be left with six locations in their home state of Alabama to go along with three in Kentucky and 15 in Texas, their most productive market, where they operate shops in Austin, Houston, Dallas, Ft. Worth, San Antonio and Waco, among other communities.  

Are you surprised by the news that Steel City Pops is likely leaving the Atlanta market?  Did your purchasing habits, preferences  or perception of Steel City Pops or King of Pops change over time?  What would you like to see open in the Steel City Pops space in Decatur?

Please share your thoughts below


Anonymous said...

To be honest, keeping the name "Steel City Pops" was a big mistake. Nothing branded Birmingham is going to resonate with an Atlanta crowd, even if its a largely transient crowd. Birmingham is an inferior city to Atlanta so there isn't brand equity like a NYC or San Francisco that would resonate here.

Also, that's a big rent number. How many pops did he need to sell just to pay the rent? It looked like a nice space but that type of space for pops just does not make sense.

Anonymous said...

well, averaging $4/pop that would be 85 pops a day, everyday just to pay the rent. But that doesn't take into account cost to make the pops, including ingredients, machinery, freezers, or employees to serve them. You would need to sell a whole hell of a lot of pops to make money.

Anonymous said...

I actually thought they are tastier than King of Pops.

Carl said...

I knew they weren't going to make it when Jim Watkins unsubscribed from my monthly newsletter...

Anonymous said...

I've been in there 3 times (much to my dismay). This is how it went each time:

"Nice joint! Can I get a strawberry pop? and a..."
"Oh... well then... can i get one of them lemonde ones?"
"I see... well... hows about one of those Mango deals for my kid?"
"Goodness gracious! Hibiscus I guess?
"My heavens! Pray tell, what pops are in stock?"
"I'll just have a water. thanks."

Anonymous said...

@Anon @10:47AM - so a successful company with locations in AL, KY, and TX should change its name when it comes to the Atlanta market? I disagree. Hindsight is 20/20 and one can make this argument but it's flawed. First, in this day and age of lack of knowledge, I'm sure many had no idea that Steel City refers to B'ham. Second, the business model is a tough one. Steel City came to Atlanta and went big with this Decatur space. As the other commenter said, just to break even on rent they need to sell 85 pops a day from a space that isn't really so walkable. Yes, Decatur is walkable but where they are isn't a place people randomly pass. They should have made their pops in an area with low rent and had a much smaller storefront, if any. Look how KOP relied on carts and is now a favorite. I do however agree that Atlantans support Atlanta businesses which is great. Even if maybe inferior. That's why Emeril, Tom Collicio and others have failed.

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