Humans of Parkland: Neal Shannon
Neal Shannon is a 26-year-old business major at Parkland and is one of the founders of the Pop Stop, his local business which can be seen selling handmade gelatos and popsicles from their mobile carts around local events.
Although the Pop Stop, which is now in its 4th year, originally catered in snacks like popcorn, candy, and chips, the decision was soon made after formation to transition the business into selling popsicles and gelatos, the treats the stop is known for trafficking today.
“After a couple months of tooling around town in a glorified concessions stand, we closed for the winter and got to thinking. We had actually already named our company ‘the Pop Stop’ and it struck us to try popsicles. We started our tests with a shaved ice popsicle option we called ‘Hawaiian Icicles,’ but in the quest for quality we decided to use real fruit instead,” Shannon said.
He says the transition was major and eventually led to the company’s complete redesign and incorporation into “the Pop Stop, Inc.”
“Originally, I just wanted to copy any classic dessert or taste combination and utilize that flavor into a popsicle,” he said. “The fruit ones are easy, just get an idea that might taste good and try it. One of my favorites and more unique sorbet pops is the ‘Mango Lime Cilantro,’ inspired by a fruit salad dish my friend’s dad would make. As for gelato pops, we have our own special recipe for a vanilla base, and then we just add to it.”
Shannon says he works to create new flavor options with a “wow” factor.
“My inspirations are everywhere,” he says. “[T]he main thing I strive for is something that is going to taste great and make you say ‘wow,’ and I’m not afraid to make something weird. Researching pop recipes never really ends, but I have my own science to it now.”
Growing up, he and his friends, some of whom are now his business partners, always showed a knack for entrepreneurship, often setting up classic lemonade stands as young as age six.
“It wasn’t necessarily about the money, though who doesn’t want four dollars when they’re six years old. I remember just making the sign and convincing people to stop was super fun. Another time, one of my business partners, Barrett, and I sold CD mixes we burned in school. We just got excited about stuff and liked the feeling that we were creating something of value.”
That knack eventually manifested itself in the purchase of a shaved ice machine and trailer by one of Shannon’s long-time friends. It took about six months to completely redesign the company from snack cart to the popsicle and gelato stand that is more similar to the Pop Stop today.
Shannon says the cart may have been open for business earlier if he and his partners had not attempted to run things with an “it has to be perfect mentality.” Despite the perfectionist attitude, Shannon admits the Pop Stop’s opening was much less than perfect. Only two flavors of popsicle were available at its first appearance.
“It is a constant process of learning,” Shannon said. “The second year making pops, we unveiled our gelato pops in my quest to create the perfect fudgesicle. The gelato with the sorbet really added some flavor to the menu. I love the stuff.”
Even now, after the four years Shannon has put in to the Pop Stop, he still finds the business is always a challenging pursuit.
“Finding which locations and events work and which don’t work is one of the most costly and time consuming challenges. I had some restaurant management experience, but I didn’t have a business degree and we just did what we felt was right,” he said. “I have always been pretty good at having a naïve blind confidence in what I do so I was always convinced we would be millionaires. Realistically, we had long term plans to open a store front, prove the concept, and franchise, but we have moved a different direction.”
Since forming the company, one of Shannon’s two partners moved away and the other has decided to take a more hands-off role as he focuses more on school. It’s a situation that Shannon says gives him the opportunity to run the business as more of a “solo-operator.”
Today, his “normal responsibilities include creating the yearly summer event calendar, completing paperwork [like] applying for events, paying insurance, health fees, [and] bills, making pops and crafting new recipes, selling pops at events, our weekly market operation, our catering, tracking sales and costs, and more.”
For Shannon, his return to Parkland after a seven-year hiatus has had its benefits.
“I am enjoying learning things that I can actually apply to what I do. Economics and accounting concepts can be applied directly to my business to improve how I make decisions and track things. I am glad to have waited so long before returning to school. After having some life experience, making mistakes, meeting some people, working jobs, and building a more complete world view, I feel like I really want to be at school. I have a focus and an idea of what I want to do for the rest of my life and that helps me keep school as a top priority.”
He is majoring in business administration but also plans on earning a degree from the University of Illinois and hopes to dual major in environmental sciences.
Shannon says the Pop Stop will be seen less and less as the season winds down.
“Our big events are behind us, but we may be at a few more farmer’s markets, Tuesday in Champaign and Saturday in Urbana,” he said.
Next summer, however, Parkland students may have the opportunity to patronize the Pop Stop right on