We roll into a tranquil Summerville subdivision at a crawl. A speaker jerry-rigged to the hood of our utility van with bungee cords blares the gratingly chipper Super Mario Bros. theme song on repeat.
It’s just before noon on a Tuesday in mid-May as the coronavirus pandemic enters its second full month in South Carolina, and it's high time to sell alcoholic ice pops door-to-door in the Lowcountry suburbs.
From identical stoops and over well-manicured lawns, the residents of this sprawling neighborhood amble toward us: mothers and fathers, children and credit cards in tow. They come for frozen “gourmet wine” and “organic spiked ice” and, lately, Jell-O Shots in familiar cocktail-esque flavors like Moscow Mule.
“I love my job,” says Jade Williams, the Booze Pops driver I've paired up with for the morning. Then she shifts our big blue Booze Pops van into park and heads for the window where our customers are waiting.
In the beginning
The coronavirus pandemic has changed routines throughout the Lowcountry, for residents and businesses alike. Booze Pops, a Summerville-based purveyor of frozen alcoholic (and non-alcoholic) push pops and “cocktails on a stick,” has not been exempt from the change of pace.
The business, formed four years ago by a retired Army veteran named Woody Norris, serves Columbia and Folly Beach, and boasts a franchisee in Myrtle Beach and a presence in the North Charleston Coliseum. But longtime Charlestonians and out-of-town bachelorette parties know Booze Pops best as the iced wares that commission-based workers hawk from their parked, branded vehicles at intersections throughout downtown Charleston.
The pops themselves are exactly what you’d expect them to be: a social-media-optimized mix of flavoring, alcohol and branding, served cold. Norris gets them from a supplier out-of-state.
But the vans! Painted sky-blue and outfitted with disco balls, specialty lights and American flags, Booze Pops’ vans have been a familiar late-night sideshow from Calhoun Street to Spring Street for nearly half a decade. Each costs between $30,000 and $40,000 to put on the road; each is fully wrapped in custom vinyl graphics and menus, and equipped with two massive ice chests that can hold hundreds of dollars’ worth of product.
“It’s becoming an attraction,” Norris told The Post and Courier in 2017.
Not everyone agreed that was a good thing. That year, the City of Charleston called on the S.C. Department of Revenue to revisit its classification of Norris’ wares as foodstuffs, a designation that put the pops beyond the purview of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act. The DOR deferred any regulation to the state legislature, which went nowhere.
Booze Pops rides high
Booze Pops, on the other hand, went everywhere, expanding considerably in the intervening years. Since 2016, Norris has formed four Booze Pop-related companies to handle operations, distribution, and franchising for the brand. (Franchises, he told me, are $20,000 plus a “low flat monthly fee.”) The operation added a standalone “Booze Pop shack” on a trailer and by summer 2019 had grown its fleet of vans to a total of five.
“We have put over 125 people to work since opening,” he said . Norris pays his workers, like Williams, as contractors on an hourly wage, plus a commission on sales. His daughter, Nina, began working for her father’s company on and off in 2016.
The company’s growth can be attributed at least partially to the vet-turned-entrepreneur’s knack for positioning his brand adjacent to celebrity. A cursory look through Booze Pops’ Instagram, for example, reveals shots with a menagerie of semi-prominent folks, from actors Jamie Lee Curtis and Judy Greer to Sebastian Bach of Skid Row to indie-rock band Cage The Elephant.
Norris also secures video "shout-outs" from celebs, either when he crosses paths with them in person or via the video-sharing platform Cameo. Via the pay-to-play service, Akon, Pauly Shore, David Hasselhoff and Tommy Chong have all recorded messages hawking Booze Pops, which the brand quickly reposts to its own social channels.
Norris declined to say how much he has spent on this marketing, and claimed some of the videos are offered to him free or discounted because of his status as a veteran. (Of the stars that Booze Pops has commissioned, Akon's $444 Cameo rate is the highest of the bunch.)
In any case, everything seemed to be coming up Booze Pop when I first spoke with Norris in August 2019.
“We’re growing at an accelerated rate,” Norris said proudly as he prepared for a trip to the Emmys in Los Angeles. (He’d won a contest on LinkedIn to be a featured vendor at the gala, and in September drove one of his vans across the country to tuck cocktails on a stick into the gift bags of Hollywood’s best-dressed.)
The dust-up with the city was long-since sorted out, he continued, and the future was bright. He spoke of his hope to do a helicopter “Pop Drop” event, akin to the bouncy-ball drops that occasionally break up seventh-inning stretches at Charleston RiverDogs game.
“Sales doubled in the first year and then doubled again this year,” he told me. “Excited to see what next year brings.”
'Lemonade outta lemons'
2020, of course, brought plenty — to the world, to South Carolina and, yes, even to the seemingly carefree commercial landscape of mobile alcohol-infused Popsicle vending.
Booze Pops’ decade started well enough, with Norris driving out to Los Angeles again to appear at the Grammy Awards in January.
But, in February, the company filed a federal lawsuit alleging trademark infringement, among other things, against a business partner-turned-rival Popsicle purveyor in Florida. (That company had brought suit against Norris’ own firm last summer.)
As spring wore on and the coronavirus pandemic brought about the partial shutdown of South Carolina’s economy, King Street went quiet. Into quarantine went the droves of drink-seeking stumblers who in the past might have been prime targets for a pitch on the merits of frozen piña coladas out of the back of a van.
After seeing not a single Booze Pops van on a masked-up bike ride down King Street one day in late April, I gave Norris a call, wondering if COVID-19 had put the thaw to his refrigerated, rolling empire. Turns out, I was way off.
“Our sales have tripled!” the alco-pop peddler told me excitedly, though he declined to offer specific sales figures.
As bars and restaurants shuttered and downsized due to the pandemic, Booze Pops was expanding. Norris added a sixth van to its fleet, and then a seventh, and the company was hiring more drivers.
“We’re going through neighborhoods, we’re destroying it, I can’t keep up with the demand,” he said.
Booze Pops had occasionally rolled through the outer suburbs of the Charleston area prior to the pandemic, but with demand temporarily zeroed out in downtown Charleston, Norris had begun fanning his vans out across the Lowcountry’s new-growth neighborhoods full time.
Social media is key to the enterprise. Using the company’s 9,000-strong Facebook page, and relying on the 1,900 die-hard pop apostles following the unaffiliated Booze Pop Sightings page, Norris and his team gauge the thirst for their products in subdivisions across Berkeley, Dorchester and Charleston counties.
(Not Goose Creek though: the city fined Williams $1,100 for operating her Booze Pops van there without a business license in mid-April. Norris said Booze Pops has since secured a license, and claimed he'd been told the city would revisit its ordinances blocking the company's operation there. Though city council did discuss the ordinance at a workshop session following the incident, city clerk Kelly J. Lovette confirmed that there was no such revisionary process under way. "Our ordinance won't be changing," she said.)
Once they’ve determined demand, Norris coordinates the vans’ routes based on which neighborhoods seem to express the most interest, blasting out individual replies to the private messages they received via Facebook.
“We get thousands of messages all day long,” he said, attributing the demand to quarantine-induced boredom and the excitement for the product. “I got moms calling me being like, ‘I got three kids in the house, I need Booze Pops right now!’”
The vans also sell non-alcoholic ice creams, plus, in a nod to the pandemic, facemasks that Norris’ mother sews, and pocket-sized dispensers of hand sanitizer.
“We’re making lemonade outta lemons,” he told me over the phone.
To see this pivoted pop operation in full swing, I headed north to Summerville one morning last month to rendezvous with Norris and tag along on Williams’ route. (Since my visit, Booze Pops has returned to a hybrid of its two business models, returning vans to their downtown posts while running others on routes through the suburbs.)
For all the garishness of its vans, the Booze Pops headquarters is easy to miss: Norris runs the business out of a warehouse unit on Bacons Bridge Road that I did, in fact, miss on first pass.
When I arrived, the place was abuzz with activity. Norris bounced around the shop excitedly, showing me his new van (which he’d christened “Karen” ), the face masks and the 55-gallon barrel of DecoSan sanitizer.
Nina, his daughter, was busy helping to load up the vans for their routes that day.
“I’m trying to learn the main position,” she told me, in hopes that she’ll one day take over the business from her father.
“Call me the Booze Poppa,” he replied, laughing.
My ride for the day was with Williams, who has been working on and off for Booze Pops for about nine months. At the beginning of the pandemic, she was laid-off from her job as a bartender and server, and has been picking up regular shifts for Norris ever since.
“Woody lets me drive by myself, which is really a privilege,” she says as we make our final preparations at the depot. "My truck went viral on Tik Tok." (Several videos posted to the social-media platform under the hashtag #boozepops do indeed have over a million views.) Williams estimates she's heard the Super Mario Bros. theme song 50,000 times since this new modus operandi began.
Van loaded, we stopped for gas, then struck out for the Old Rice Retreat section of Summerville’s Cane Bay development. Williams has barely parked at the neighborhood’s entrance to allow me to board the van when our first two customers approach. The pedestrians, apparently a couple enjoying retirement, opt for two Fudge Frenzy bars. Jade makes the sale, wipes down her tablet with sanitizer, and we’re off and rolling.
Despite the quick start, the rest of the morning is fairly slow. We sell a handful of ice creams to children who run the van down on their bikes, and some alcoholic pops to adults who just seem grateful to have a distraction from the monotony of quarantine.
“The kids love the music, and it’s better than sitting inside and doing nothing, or playing Minecraft,” a resident, Jeff Grub, says with a shrug as he waits for his turn at the window.
“I love that they drive around up here,” agreed Debbie Mattay. As she checks out, Williams offers her son, recent University of South Carolina graduate Shane Zandrosky, a Jell-O shot to go with his watermelon spiked ice martini. He accepts.
It's not a typical graduation celebration, sharing alcoholic Popsicles with your mother as a global pandemic rages. But with a diploma secured, the sun shining and his very first Booze Pop in hand, quarantine could be going worse.