Meet Culinary Character Stephen DiMare, founder and owner of The Hyppo.
The DiMare family recently discovered a drawing their son Stephen created as a young child. The image was of Stephen pushing a cart of pops. Little did they know, Stephen would grow up to not only become a pop maker and shop owner, but exist as a key player in the gourmet ice pop movement—taking something once seen as a cheap convenience item, and transforming it into a gourmet experience.
In 2010, DiMare first learned of paletas—Latin American ice pops made from fresh fruit—from a stranger sitting next to him during a flight. That same year, when DiMare first set out to test his pop shop concept in his original location on Hypolita street, he couldn’t possibly have predicted that The Hyppo would erupt into a pop empire.
“I was just dying to see inside the machine of what it looked like to start a business. It needed to be something that I was really excited about because the creative aspects of starting a business were what drew me the most—not the money, or the freedom,” said DiMare.
Early on, his goal was simply not to fail. And maybe see a day in the sun, someday. “When the first stranger came into The Hyppo on the first day and bought a pop and liked it—that to me was an insanely satisfying completion of a feedback loop of something I’d been wanting to do for years,” he said.
Stephen was 24 when his first shop on Hypolita opened. Now, at age 29, Hyppo has been the primary focus of his decade.
Today, just five years later, The Hyppo has three pop shops in St. Augustine, including The Hyppo Cafe—pop production headquarters; three pop shops in nearby Gainesville; one coming soon to Jacksonville’s Riverside neighborhood, and new Florida markets on the horizon. Hyppo pops are also now sold in the freezer section of nearly 250 grocery stores.
And with the help of two step vans, or “pop trucks,” and vintage pop cart, The Hyppo has been making the rounds at community events and private gatherings.
FRESH FRUIT MATTERS
At the heart of The Hyppo’s success, and the key ingredient of all Hyppo pops, is wholesome fruit—ripe, real, fresh, local and seasonal. Along with sourcing fruit from Beaver Street Market in Jacksonville, and directly from farms, by working with fruit purveyors and because Hyppo only uses fruit in its ripest form, DiMare is able to get his hands on fruit that is too fresh for commercial resale.
“In a way, I like to think that we are a cool part of the fruit food chain. We can kind of immortalize fruit at its peak ripeness when it would be tenuous to buy for resale,” said DiMare. His commitment to sustainable food ethics dates back to his childhood. Having spent ample time on his grandparents’ farm, DiMare grew up with a love for wholesome food in its truest form.
“From a very young age I was ingrained in this idea that things that are from scratch taste better.” A self-proclaimed foodie with Italian roots, eating has always been a pleasurable, and oftentimes, otherworldly experience.
“When I taste something absolutely incredible I have to close my eyes and be in that moment and taste that thing,” said DiMare. “Those are experiences I live for and look forward to.”
With the help of his production team, DiMare translates this sensation of food-driven euphoria, into every single pop. From Datil Strawberry, to Reisling Pear, anyone who has tried a Hyppo pop knows there’s nothing ordinary about the flavor profiles.
“It’s everyone’s favorite part of the job—getting to be involved in new flavor creation and expressing their creativity in a way that’s functional and experienced by other people,” he said.
Coming up with a new pop flavor at this point, is its own math equation—starting with seasonal produce, adding and subtracting from what’s been done before, seeing what new twist can be taken, and arriving at something extraordinary.
“We have such a huge repertoire of flavors now that we can build off of, and use as stepping stones,” said DiMare.
Fruit aside, the only other ingredients in the pops are fresh herbs, a little bit of cane sugar, and sometimes milk. With the exception of pops where dairy acts as a primary flavor profile, such as Blackberry Goat Cheese and Blueberry Cheesecake, the majority of the milk-containing pops now use coconut milk.
AN EXPANDING EMPIRE
In 2014, DiMare’s focus was growing the wholesale side of the operations, and getting pops into grocery stores. This year, the focus is on expanding the retail side of things, more specifically, opening new pop shops. “The best way for us to come into a grocery store is for people to already know who we are,” said DiMare. He compares Hyppo to a band on tour. “Opening up stores and plugging into a community is us going on tour, and building a fan base so that people will go buy our CDs from the grocery store.”
DiMare sees this expansion not as a sprawl of repeated experiences, but the ability to have the scale and stability needed to really be a part of a community, treat that community like it deserves to be treated, and plug into local charities.
When deciding where to open a shop, for DiMare, it’s all about the people. “The business is ultimately built on people. Finding the right people to work with in a city, is as important as finding the right location,” he said.
As far as new markets go, in addition to the Jacksonville Riverside store nearly completion, DiMare is planning to open two more shops this year, one in Tampa, and one in St. Petersburg. While the Hyppo’s reach continues to expands outward, St. Augustine remains home base.
Family ties. The landscape. The speed of life. The way individuals interact with each other. Each of these aspects draws DiMare to remain in St. Augustine, and furthers his desire for this community to remain Hyppo’s home. Likewise, he has a desire for Hyppo to become an integral part of local industry.
“Having grown up here, I see a huge need to have more industry here,” said DiMare. “If we can keep production here, that will be a huge accomplishment.”
When he speaks of, and envisions and future pop factory, DiMare references Ben & Jerry’s. A company that serves up their products in a number of cities via scoop shops, with a factory in Vermont—a picturesque destination that many take a pilgrimage to for the sake of touring.
At the present, DiMare’s immediate production goal is bringing all manufacturing, office and warehouse spaces under one roof. Between wholesale mini-pops, and larger pops sold in the pop shops, daily production is up above 4,000 pops a day. Currently, all pop production takes place at The Hyppo Cafe. Despite being worlds bigger than the small freezer he operated with back in 2010, The Hyppo is at capacity for pop production, and has been for quite some time.
Being at capacity doesn’t slow down DiMare’s momentum. It only offers a new challenge.
ONLINE EXTRA: GROWING IN POP-ULARITY
Although when DiMare started out in 2010, the gourmet ice pop realm was sparse, he hasn’t been alone in pioneering the gourmet ice pop movement. A couple of years ago, DiMare traveled the Eastern seaboard, from Austin to Manhattan, and all the way to Brazil, exploring other players in the pop universe, hearing their stories and collecting information for a pop-inspired documentary that remains in the works.
“The biggest takeaway was to see the community we had—myself and the other owners that have started shops from scratch. We have such varied stories of how we got into it but have similar trials and struggles of pioneering this food item and transforming it from something cheap into a food experience, and more of a destination.”
To some, competition might seem like a threat. DiMare encourages that competition only serves to help further awareness of a growing movement.
“If you are doing something the best, you don’t fear competition. Competition is a way for people to see your better qualities for what they are,” he said. “If we’re not the best, that means we’ve got stuff to work on.”
ONLINE EXTRA: NEW STORE UPDATES!
Since this story was published in our June/July print issue, Stephen has opened a new Hyppo location at 627 Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Riverside location is nearing completion. As far as his other concepts go, Stephen has opened a store on St. George Street, at 112 B. Oak & Adze hosts a selection of man craft items, and builds upon his Mustache concept.