Pop Heads: Handmade Pops With Positivity
Sweltering summers, featuring the bright rays of sunshine, a UV index of 10, and dry hot air that feels to be coming from a hairdryer. These conditions are the norm for residents of Tucson, Arizona, as all are now accustomed to the desert lifestyle. Driving with oven mitts on to combat melting your fingerprints off from your steering wheel or the distinct smell of the first rain of monsoon season.
Tucsonans are always on the lookout for new ways to beat the heat, whether it be ice packs on top of fans, community pool days at Reid Park, a fresh glass of hand-squeezed lemonade, or an icy popsicle. Luckily for locals, a new popsicle shop opened up on University Boulevard, providing the University of Arizona students and its visitors with gourmet gelato pops. PopHeads, formerly known as Peace, Love, & Pops, is a color-filled gelato passion project made into reality by Jim Roberts.
Roberts opens the shop every day at 11 a.m., paired with his iconic techno glasses, bright-colored shirt, and boundless amounts of positivity.
He and his brother-in-law, Scot Harrison started Peace Love & Pops (now PopHeads)for one reason, “To trip through the fond memories of being a kid and to create new memories with family and friends.”
“My brother-in-law and I actually saw this concept back in Alabama many many years ago. And I never could figure out why Tucson didn’t have anything like this.” Roberts said.
Tucson has its hometown ice empire, Eegees. Founded in 1971 by Edmund Irving and Robert Greenburg, the two combined their initials to form “EG”. The company featured sub sandwiches, crinkle-cut fries, signature ranch, and their biggest hit, a frozen fruit drink called an “Eegee” that has a different featured flavor each month.
The sandwich shop turned into a Tucson treasure, which grew into over 25 locations in southern Arizona. Eegees was acquired by a national chain franchise based in New York in 2018, and have plans to expand outside of Arizona, a huge deal to local Tucsonans who were used to claiming Eegees as their own.
“Tucson’s got Paletas, they have all the Mexican-type popsicles and things like that, but nothing Italian,” Roberts explained.
The pop shop features three types of different-based gelato pops, Juice, Cream, and a combination of both, the Beta pops. Roberts sources the gelato sprint straight from Italy, with flavors such as Cheesecake, Strawberry, Butter Pecan, and even Birthday Cake. Anyone can enjoy a popsicle, as Roberts made sure to include dairy-free, gluten-free, and vegan pop options.
“Emma (PopHeads employee) is all gluten-free, so I had an employee set the example, so I tried to make as much as I could gluten-free,” Roberts explained.
Roberts and his gelato team are always working on curating new flavors in-house right at University Boulevard. Each month PopHeads releases at least two new flavors, releasing five new flavors in March. Every pop gets a fun-themed name for its flavor, such as Choco Minty Fresh!, Peanut Butter Mmm.., or Enter the Dragon!.
“I have to test every single one of these pops before they come out, so I like them all. They all pass my sweet-tooth test, I think my favorite of all right now is probably the Strawberry Cheesecake,” Roberts said cheerfully.
Recently, Roberts expanded his shop to offer six new beverages, all made in-house by his “beverage master” Raymon Rayas. Every five days, Rayas comes in to curate the concentrates for each drink, including Horchata, Homestyle Pink Lemonade, Mango Lemonade, and Aguas Frescas. Rayas also works on stocking the store and delivering the pops around Downtown Tucson.
“It’s such a fun place to work and all the people coming in, the atmosphere is fun, the employees we all get along. It’s a nice experience for anyone who comes in here,” said Rayas with a smile.
Rayas explained that although he’s not working on curating pop flavors just yet, Roberts has offered guidance and the opportunity to do so. Rayas’s current favorite pop is Watermelon, “a classic!” he laughed.
The creation of new pops takes over two weeks, and figuring out how to pair ingredients such as fresh jalapenos with a dairy-based pop isn’t a straightforward process.
“First it sounded like something easy to do, but it’s not so easy once you start learning the process of what’s involved in everything, it’s an actual science to it,” Roberts explained.
Roberts works on formulas and recipes, pours the mixes into the ice molds, and freezes them to curate the gelato. PopHeads prides itself on its variety of flavors, from a simple Strawberry juice pop to Candied Piggy’s-in-a-Blanket, a creamy maple gelato with candied bacon throughout.
If customers are having difficulty choosing one of 60 flavors of pops to try, Roberts made a colored dice game, featuring a different base for each colored die. Orange for juice-based, green for dairy-based, and pink for both.
One thing they always promise is each pop is crafted with “handmade awesomeness”. These pops aren’t just limited to humans, Roberts also developed pops for our four-legged friends that of course, are in the shape of a paw-print. Their signature “Pup-pops” come in two flavors, Peanut Butter Banana and Yogurt and Berries.
Their slogan “BE COOL”, translates to many different things and aspects of their project, as Roberts explained the importance of spreading good vibes and positivity to everyone, all the time.
“I enjoy being here every day because the customers that come in are always in a good mood. I go home tired, but I go home in a good mood you know? I’m okay with that.” Roberts laughed.
PopHeads opened in June of 2022, as one of the newest openings across the University Boulevard storefronts. Their neighbors are Pei Wei, Whoops!, and a couple of nail salons surrounding them. PopHeads makes sure you can see them, as its brightly colored entrance is decorated with string lights, lawn chairs painted vibrant green, purple, and orange, and an open window into the shop inviting pedestrians to stop for a moment and enjoy everything the funky 70’s themed suite has to offer.
Roberts explained that he meets new customers and friends every day, and is more than happy to provide a safe space to relax. Mini board games like triangle peg boards and ring toss surround the supersized vibrant lawn chairs, inviting guests to lean back and relax.
“Can I leave my skateboard in here? I was just going to go eat this really quick outside if that’s okay,” said a guest who’d just purchased an Orange Creamsicle pop.
“Whatever you want to do man!” said Roberts cheerfully.
Inside, the shop is covered head to toe with local art, business cards, and a big chalkboard sign overhead displaying the words, “Dare to be Different, Be Cool, Be You, Love All”. There’s something special to be said for those who make it a mission to continue spreading positivity even without a supply for themselves.
“I was here for the very first dollar, which was pretty cute,” said Katie Viserpa, a senior at UA majoring in urban planning regional development, and one of the first employees of Pop Heads.
“Over the summer, I was walking on University with all my friends and we popped in here, and they were closed. But, Jim said they needed employees and so me and all of my roommates applied to work here, and we all worked here! We all worked opening day which was so fun,” said Viserpa.
Viserpa mentioned that the employees help Roberts to come up with flavors, and test them out each month. Her personal favorite (for now) continues to be Raspberry Lemon.
“I gotta say my favorite part about working here is Jim. He is definitely like the coolest, most fun boss you could ever have. He’s a great listener, goes with the flow, and understands there’s more to life than just work,” Viserpa added.
“It’s..I’m gonna sound so cliche but I mean it, I’d call it my second home. I love this place, and I’m not planning on leaving anytime soon,” said Viserpa with pride.
College campuses are filled with opportunities, but immense responsibility at such a young age. Dealing with a generation of gun violence, drug addiction, and a homeless crisis spanning across the nation, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the negative when the positive seems merely like a fantasy. Roberts wanted to remind the Tucson community, specifically the University of Arizona, that there’s always time to take a moment and enjoy yourself. Whether it be an uplifting song, the company of close friends, or an ice-pop, PopHeads offers a place of relief and relaxation even for a brief couple of minutes.
“The message is, to stop and smell the flowers. You know? It’s a place to hang out, have a popsicle, have some fun, take your shoes off and just relax. Take that chill from life. There’s enough stress out there.” Roberts laughed.