The Crown Heights ice cream parlor specializes in flavors inspired by ingredients from Trinidad, Grenada, and Jamaica.
Shelly Marshall of Island Pops | Courtesy of Island Pops
Shelly Marshall of Island Pops | Courtesy of Island Pops
Ordinarily, being laid off from your high-powered consulting job while five months pregnant is cause for immediate panic. But for Shelly Marshall, it was just the sort of life-altering push that she needed to finally devote herself full-time to her true passion: ice cream making. “My mother said, ‘Are you going to go to one of your competitors and go back into consulting? Or are you going to open up that shop that you’ve always wanted?’” Marshall recalls. Up until that point in 2017, Marshall and her husband Khalid Hamid had been running Island Pops as a side project, specializing in Caribbean-inspired ice cream and popsicle flavors. All their free time was spent hustling at street fairs and food markets. “I think if I hadn’t gotten laid off, I probably would still be working in consulting and doing this on the side,” says Marshall.
Island Pops’s origin story begins even earlier, however. Much earlier: Marshall and Hamid are both from Trinidad and Tobago — though raised on opposite sides of the island of Trinidad — and even attended the same high school (although they didn’t know each other then). As luck would have it, St. James Secondary School was across the street from one of Port of Spain’s most famous ice cream parlors: B&M. “We grew up very humbly in the Caribbean,” Marshall says. “Ice cream was a luxury. But, if you had a dollar left over at the end of the day, you could go to B&M and get a huge, 16-ounce cup and they’d fill it up with like four different flavors. That’s one of my most profound memories.” Popular varieties included Trinidadian stalwarts like soursop, sapodilla, sea moss, and pineapple.
Fast forward to adulthood: After connecting at a school reunion event in New York, the two began dating and eventually married. And, one day in 2014, when Marshall was craving a taste of home — soursop ice cream, to be exact — Hamid discovered there was no shop in Brooklyn that could offer them that taste of their Trinidadian childhood. The idea for Island Pops was born. Just a year later, the couple completed Penn State’s famed ice cream course and won Brooklyn Public Library’s PowerUP! Competition, where entrepreneurs competed for seed money for their businesses. From there, they began to grow their fan base, catering private events on the weekends. Part of what makes their ice cream so unique is its 18% butterfat content; many other varieties top out at 14%. The result is a rich, ultra creamy ice cream base, which may cost a bit more to manufacture, but Marshall and Hamid did not want to compromise on taste.
“They don’t want to come from Staten Island and not get their soursop or sapodilla.”
But, back to the layoff: Luckily for ice cream aficionados across the city, the corporate world’s loss was their gain. In 2018, just two months after they gave birth to their first child, the couple opened up the first brick and mortar outpost of Island Pops in Crown Heights. They decided on the location because the neighborhood not only caters to Caribbean transplants, but is also hip enough to attract those looking for the next “big” thing, whether that’s fashion or food. But make no mistake: Island Pops creates ice cream for the Caribbean palate. There are other stores that carry some of the same flavors — Marshall mentions Taste of the Tropics and Crème and Cocoa — but Island Pops is the only shop that specializes solely in flavors that hail from the islands. They make about 15 core flavors, which Marshall and Hamid are generally loath to switch out, because their customer base is very loyal to their favorites. “They don’t want to come from Staten Island and not get their soursop or sapodilla,” Marshall says. “We know our customers are set in their ways, which is good!”
And for those who may be unfamiliar with Caribbean flavors, the couple knows describing them only goes so far. “I always hand them a taste of it, because that’s the only way they’ll understand,” Marshall says of soursop, for example. While she likens the prickly green fruit to something like a guava-vanilla flavor, “some say it’s like strawberry or pineapple. Everyone comes to the shop and thinks it tastes like something else,” she says.
Marshall and Hamid initially created Island Pops because they missed the ice cream of Trinidad, but the store carries flavors that resonate for many different Caribbean immigrants. “We always have nutmeg, because Grenadians love that. The Jamaicans love grapenut. For Barbados expats, we have the banana-Bailey’s-coconut. Bahamians have the Dark ’n’ Stormy. We’re trying to please every Caribbean island palate,” Marshall says.
Catering to so many different tastes means keeping the menu relatively static, but the couple did roll out one new flavor this season that’s been very successful: sea moss. “It’s not fishy at all and I know a lot of celebrities are putting it in their smoothies now,” she says.
In addition to traditional ice creams, Island Pops also has a substantial selection of vegan flavors. In what may be one of the industry’s biggest ironies, Hamid developed a lactose intolerance during the first year of opening the shop. “It’s one of those things where it’s a gift and curse at the same time,” he says. “Lord knows I’ve always enjoyed ice cream. So, having my own ice cream shop and being able to eat an unlimited amount of ice cream would have been spectacular. But, it would also have been very… weight-gaining, I would say,” he adds with a laugh. Island Pops’s vegan flavors start with a house-made cashew milk, which is almost as rich as a traditional dairy base. Then, it’s blended with fruits like strawberry or — Hamid’s favorite — into a Caribbean Chocolate flavor, which is made with cocoa imported from Trinidad. The shop’s rotating popsicle selection is also dairy-free: current blends include everything from watermelon-mint to rum punch.
Like any small business, Island Pops has had to be nimble during the COVID-19 crisis, but the silver lining is that they’ve been able to expand in ways they hadn’t considered before. “The pandemic forced us all to be more creative in our delivery system,” Hamid says. “Now we’re servicing the Bronx, Long Island, Queens, and all throughout Brooklyn.” And, even amid quarantine restrictions, they still plan on celebrating the shop’s second anniversary this month. Looking ahead, the couple would also like to begin wholesale operations locally, with an eventual goal of being a recognizable brand everywhere.
“We’re starting off slowly, focusing on getting into smaller, neighborhood groceries, and then eventually going nationwide,” he says. “The sky is the limit.”
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Juliet Izon is a Thrillist contributor.