It was tax season 2011, and siblings Joe Vergara and Liza Vergara-Gross were forced to acknowledge the stagnant state of their pastry and dessert business, Sasasweets.
“We came to the realization that we weren’t moving forward like we wanted to,” said Vergara, 41. “If the plan’s not working, you’ve got to change your plans. It was just me and my sister — there were no employees — and we decided to change direction and go into frozen treats.”
They didn’t have to worry about employees, but there was plenty of risk for themselves.
They started their business in Las Vegas just after the recession hit, and their margins were as thin as wax paper.
They invested what they had into converting the business into frozen pops and other cold treats and borrowed from friends and family.
The siblings sold the new fruit- and cream-based dessert pops, along with shaved ice that they had always offered, at farmers markets throughout the summer of 2011.
By January, they were ready to officially launch Sasapops, and they traveled to a specialty food trade show in San Francisco to sample their new product.
They handed out pops in an assortment of flavors: blackberry lemonade, pink guava, passion fruit, apple pie a la mode, French vanilla bean and salted peanut caramel.
At the trade show, they were nominated for an award for innovation and one for general product excellence.
They returned from California and scrounged together what they could to submit a contest entry.
“We were still counting pennies at this point,” Vergara said. “It was wintertime, and we weren’t selling very many pops. Basically, we were asking friends and family for $150 so we could pack the Popsicles in dried ice and overnight ship them to the judges.”
But as they sent off the packages hoping for some recognition that would jump-start the revised business model, they got some welcome news.
Whole Foods agreed to sell the Popsicles in all of its Southern Nevada stores.
Sasasweets started in Chicago, where both Joe and Liza grew up.
Their parents emigrated in 1968 from the Philippines, and their father, Audie, found work as an engineer.
During the hot-and-muggy summers off Lake Michigan, their mother, Rina, an office manager, would make her own version of Popsicles that she learned from her mother back in the Philippines.
“Our mom would take the overripe fruit and mash it all up with sugar and water and freeze it in sandwich bags. She called it ice candy,” Vergara said. “That’s what he had instead of going to the ice cream truck.”
Foreshadowing their later business partnership, the siblings sold their mother’s “ice candy” on the street corner when other neighborhood children set up lemonade stands.
Vergara-Gross later went on to train as a pastry chef at Nick’s Fishmarket in Chicago, and Sasasweets started by selling cookie dough to Chicago-area restaurants and cafes.
Vergara traveled a lot, and after a stint in San Francisco and a visit to the Philippines, he settled in Las Vegas in early 2008.
“Las Vegas is the most American town in the United States,” he said. “To outsiders, it’s all about money and sex, but for those who live here, they know this place wouldn’t even exist except for the hard work of the people who make it a reality. There’s nothing more American than that.”
Vergara wanted to sell shaved ice and Sasasweets at farmers markets, but when he first arrived, he found that niche was already filled.
“You just have to wait your turn when someone is already doing the specialty item you want to do,” he said. “So, I also like to make soaps, and I decided to sell those at the market while I waited. When the shaved-ice stand quit the markets after six months, I jumped in.”
After Vergara landed in Las Vegas, he quickly convinced his sister to move west. They make for a good team, as Vergara-Gross, who is soft-spoken and less gregarious than her older brother, handles all aspects of production.
Vergara, a former information technology specialist who is affable and outgoing, handles the front of the house, marketing, sales and distribution.
They sold pastries, cakes and other desserts at farmers markets and to restaurants but found it difficult to get their product, made with all fresh ingredients, into retail venues. Also, with the wealth of top-flight restaurants, mega-resorts and tourist-centric industries in Las Vegas, the pastry market is a crowded one.
They were pouring all of their time, money and energy into the business but seeing little growth.
They were not quite ready to close their kitchen though, and, with the desert climate as their guide, they focused on all things frozen.
“This whole exercise has been a huge test of faith, and it was tough not to give up sometimes,” said Vergara-Gross, 34. “Our parents thought we were crazy.”
Turning the corner
“Sasa” is the nickname Vergara-Gross has carried since childhood, and the siblings turned to their youth and their memories of mom’s ice candy to find the new direction for their company.
Just as they did with pastries, their business model was to create a high-quality product using all fresh, natural ingredients. There are no preservatives or stabilizers (such as guar gum) to keep the pops from melting into mush.
While Sasapops offers flavors common to the Popsicle world such as lemon-lime, strawberry and vanilla, they also feature unique creations and Filipino and South American-influenced flavors, including raspberry lychee lemon drop, lemon creme with shortbread, and Mayan chocolate.
All of the fruit pops consist of just three ingredients: fruit, water and sugar. The calamansi pop, made from the Filipino fruit of the same name that is a hybrid of a kumquat and a mandarin, is addictively refreshing, especially when temperatures in the valley hit triple digits.
They chop and juice all of the fruit themselves — nothing is from concentrate, pre-made or bottled. Even the little pieces of cake in the pineapple upside-down cake and blueberry cheesecake pops are made on the premises byVergara-Gross.
In January, the siblings started to see the fruits of their perseverance.
Whole Foods has “foragers” who scout local products for their stores. Sasapops was tapped for the four Las Vegas-area stores.
“Sasapops is successful because they have a fantastic product and do a great job of supporting the product by offering samples to customers and (Whole Foods) team members so they know more about the products,” said Sonja Brown, Whole Foods marketing supervisor for Las Vegas, who added that pink guava is her favorite flavor. “What makes them special is that they are handcrafted here by Joe and Liza. When they started with us it was just them. ... Now, it’s the story of a successful business from people who followed their passion.”
In March, a year after they had reviewed their bleak tax returns and changed gears, the siblings received word they had won both of the competitions they entered.
They received the 2012 Food & Beverage Product Innovation Award from the National Restaurant Association and the Award of Excellence in the retail gourmet ice pops category from the American Masters of Taste, an independent panel of judges.
They were still working 80 hours per week and reinvesting everything they made back into the business, but they could sense the momentum building.
Also in March, they moved out of a relatively small shop in Boulder City and into a 3,000-square-foot production facility in North Las Vegas, half of which is occupied by giant walk-in freezers. In one year, they have added 10 employees and have gone from making 100 pops per day to producing between 800 and 1,000 daily.
The Sasapops Facebook page counts more than 200 “likes” and dozens of posts from fans who declare them the “best Popsicles ever.”
Last week, the Discovery Channel was at their new facility to feature Sasapops on the show “Business Update.”
Now that the business is rolling, the siblings are not taking a break. The catalog of flavors is now at 60, and they have plenty of plans for growth.
“We do almost everything by hand, including juicing every single lemon,” Vergara-Gross said. “Eventually, we might buy machines to do some of these things that will speed up the process and make it possible to produce more.”
Soon, Sasapops will be offering specially made alcoholic pops — think margarita and strawberry daiquiri — at the Vdara pool.
Next, they want to find a retail space, perhaps in downtown Las Vegas, where they can sell the pops, shaved ice, sorbet, gelato and ice cream — all with their characteristic dedication to fresh, quality ingredients.
“I think if a first-year business student assessed our business in the early stages, they would have wanted to blow it all up,” Vergara said. “They would say: ‘Your costs are too high. You should use food substitutes, stabilizers and gums so that the product can handle temperature fluctuations and you won’t have to run the freezers so cold.’ But then we would be compromising everything we stood for, which is creating something that tastes good and is of the best quality.”