On a busy corner in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Khalid Hamid and his wife Shelly Marshall can be found scooping ice cream for customers in their shop Island Pops. They specialize in frozen desserts, from ice pops to ice cream, which feature flavors from Trinidad, where they both grew up. Currently, their two most popular items are soursop ice cream, made from the creamy sweet fruit that grows in Trinidad and a pink sorbet made from sorrel flowers. The menu features other surprises including lemon nutmeg cookie and orange bitters ice creams, as well as lemon lime basil ice pops.
Until last summer, Hamid and Marshall made their frozen treats at a shared kitchen space and sold their colorful creations at parties and festivals. In July 2018, they transitioned to a brick and mortar shop on Nostrand Avenue, amid other West Indian businesses like Trinidadian bakeries pumping out sugary aromas and patty shops, as well as newer businesses that reflect the changing neighborhood, like a French Senegalese café, a tiki bar and coffee houses.
On a recent afternoon Hamid commandeered the shop singlehandedly, while Marshall stayed home to mind their two young children. A light breeze from one of spring’s first sunny and warm afternoons flowed through the corner shop’s large, wraparound windows.
Neighborhood regulars and curious first time customers started to form a line out the door. Hamid, sometimes serving three customers at once, still made time to talk to kids, give ice cream samples, explain the flavors and greet friends warmly with occasional fist bumps. No one seemed to mind the wait.
During a break from the afternoon rush, Hamid explained why he and Marshall, who he refers to as “Wifey,” first launched their business after he’d worked in the nonprofit sector, their West Indian flavors and transitioning to a brick and mortar shop.
Did you always want to be an ice cream entrepreneur?
No, I came for school from Trinidad [and] Tobago in 2002 to study psychology. I ran vocational programs for mentally disabled individuals for about 15 years; there were about 70 individuals, 30 staff.
After I got married, I thought, “I’m working for nonprofit, I’m giving, helping everyone else. There’s not much left to give to the family and build something.” That’s when I started to tinker with the idea of having a business of some sort.
Did you randomly pick ice cream?
What happened is that my wife had gotten really sick coming back from Trinidad; she had this ailment called chikungunya, from a mosquito bite. After a week of horrendous fever and body pains, she was craving soursop ice cream. I tried to make it, and it did not come out good.
We couldn’t find it anywhere at the standard that we are used to. No one was making high quality frozen desserts using West Indian flavors. We realized we have a niche here. So, Wifey did the famous ice cream course at Penn State University and taught me how to make it.
How did you get your first customers?
We have some friends who are party promoters. We made cocktail popsicles and handed them out at these parties. It was just promotional and an avenue for us to get our name into the West Indian community. Eventually, people started taking orders and it blossomed into a business.
What gave us our first real boost was winning the PowerUP business plan writing competition at the Brooklyn Library in 2015. They guide a class through the steps of writing a business plan, and each business plan is entered into a competition at the end. We won $15,000, and that’s what we used to get licensing and basically our start.
Explain some of your Trinidadian flavors.
We use a lot of soursop; it’s pure deliciousness! When you slice it open it looks like milk with seeds. In Trinidad, we use sorrel around Christmas time when the flowers start to bloom. We brew it as a tea, seasoned with cinnamon and cloves. We serve Guinness caramel ice cream; Guinness was brought by the English who were in Trinidad for a loooooong time. Guinness is one of our favorite pastimes [laughs].
After working out of a shared kitchen space and selling desserts at festivals and parties, was it nerve-wracking to open a brick and mortar shop?
We were scared for a long time to have a brick and mortar. We were comfortable without one, you know, you can come and go as you please.
But we took two years to build a following, to get peoples’ taste buds going and minds wondering when we’d finally have a shop—people kept asking and asking. Then, we did it last year. It was a smooth transition. We made the right choice; we had a very warm reception in the community.
I want to say finding this space was by chance, but it was more like a blessing. We were just walking along the street, wondering where would we put this shop. We happened to walk into the landlord, who is also Trinidadian, and he was gracious enough to give us the space for a wonderful price.
Did you need financing?
We are bootstrappers! Until we had a brick and mortar, we had not taken out any loans or taken on any investors. We were just using our savings, the business was taking care of itself.
The Brooklyn Public Library has been awesome to us. Once we decided we wanted a brick and mortar, the library’s Small Business Services helped us find BCNA [the Business Center for New Americans], and they were wonderful enough to help with some financing. We also used a crowdfunding Kiva loan—we had 30 days to raise the money; we did it in one day.
Besides your unique flavors, is there anything else about being an immigrant from Trinidad that has impacted your business?
We are used to having very little and doing a lot with it. Stretching a dollar. Trying to use what I have and making it work is something I do everyday owning a business.
The islands also made who I am. I’m pretty relaxed and having a business with something going wrong every other day, you kind of need a relaxed attitude, it helps my temperament. Also, work ethic. In the Caribbean, we work very hard.
Have you OD’ed on ice cream, do you still eat it?
I’ve actually become lactose intolerant! [laughs] It happened within the last year, so I have the sorbets. Occasionally, I just say, “Oh, the hell with it,” and I mix the ice cream with the sorbet.
Do you use any of your psychology training now?
Everyday! [laughs] No one comes to an ice cream shop unhappy, but if they do, I try and let them leave happy. Sometimes I find myself sitting down and just listening to people. I look at myself providing a service, not just selling ice cream, more like wellness—a full island experience.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.