ST. PETERSBURG — It’s been a busy couple of years for Sara Fludd.
Since first launching her company in 2017, the CEO and founder of Pop Goes the Waffle has become one of the most recognized local food entrepreneurs in the Tampa Bay area. Her coveted liege waffles, which Fludd sells from inside her signature bright blue truck as well as through wholesale and online markets, are a common sight at festivals, events and coffee shops across town.
Recently, Fludd, who also works in the marketing department at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, has been readying to open her first brick-and-mortar cafe, slated to debut in 2022 in Gulfport.
“The history of Gulfport is that it used to be a ‘sundown town,’ ” Fludd said, referring to cities where, historically, Black people could face harassment or violence if they stayed within town limits at night. “So there’s a sense of excitement about being a Black woman business owner in Gulfport, especially because there’s so few of us. I just think, ‘Wow, I wish my grandparents were here to be able to see that kind of moment.’ I’m in a place where I wouldn’t be able to be after sundown 50 years ago and now I’m going to be able to open my doors and have a business. I am proud to be rewriting that history into something else.”
Earlier this month, Fludd was chosen to participate in the 2021 Stacy’s Rise Project, a $10,000 grant and mentorship program aimed at helping women owners build their businesses. The program is a collaboration between Stacy’s Pita Chips and Hello Sunshine, a media company founded by actor Reese Witherspoon.
We spoke with Fludd, 52, about the mentorship program and what her fans can expect from the cafe at 5004 Tangerine Ave. S when it opens next year. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about the new Gulfport location.
It’s right off 49th Street and 18th Avenue S, in Tangerine Plaza. The city did a revitalization (of the area) and it’s got a trolley park and we’re right in front of this green space, which is beautiful. When it’s not so hot, it’s going to be great for people to walk around and let the kids run and have a good time. The building was a former bar or nightclub — it’s been abandoned for a little over a decade — so the owners are still doing some work on it. It’s going to have a nice cafe in the front with a beautiful pastry counter and lots of different flavors (of waffles) for people to choose from. It’s 2,400 square feet, but most of that is going to be production space.
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We haven’t decided on hours yet, but we’re thinking probably from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the weekends and limited weekday hours to start, on Thursdays and Fridays, probably from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m.
I am hoping to be open by the first quarter of next year. As these things go, there have been surprises and delays. I started working in food when I was 14 at Wendy’s and one thing I’ve learned is to underpromise and overdeliver.
What’s on the menu?
We’re always going to have the cinnamon bun (waffle pop), which is cinnamon sugar and cream cheese frosting; maple bacon; some kind of seasonal fruit like the strawberries and cream waffle; probably a Nutella waffle with banana or caramel; and then a turtle (version) that’s going to be caramel, chocolate and pecans. I think we will definitely keep at least one vegan option on the menu as well.
The extra space will allow us to have more savory options, too. On the truck, every now and then we’ll do shrimp and grits waffles — but it’s really hard. So I’m looking forward to having brunch on the weekends, where we’ll be able to play and riff off of those more savory things. Anytime you put something in a waffle iron, it becomes a waffle: There might be a biscuit waffle with sausage and gravy or a Low Country shrimp gravy over a three-cheese grits waffle. We’ve got a shepherd’s pie waffle where we use mashed potatoes as the base and we’ll do a corn bread version with a chili, jalapenos and cheddar. You can do anything with a waffle.
Where can people find your waffles in the meantime?
Our wholesale operation is focused on liege waffles. We always provide the vanilla or the chocolate and we have seasonal ones — the pumpkin spice is our fall flavor and we’ll do an eggnog (waffle) in December for Christmas. We started at Kahwa Coffee and our waffles are also over at Southside Coffee (Brew Bar), at Crislip Cafe, at the Chelsea and at Blind Tiger coffee shops, mostly in the Tampa area.
We’ll still be doing the food truck at popup events and markets. We do Breakfast on the Deuces every first Saturday of the month (in St. Petersburg) and sometimes we’re at Blush Tea & Coffee in St. Pete and the Blind Tiger in Seminole Heights. Those are a few of our favorite places.
Tell us about the Stacy’s 2021 Rise Project.
When I applied for the grant, one of the application requirements was to name a challenge that you were having as a small-business owner. One of my challenges was e-commerce — when everything shut down during the pandemic, I put up a website for shipping and ran into all sorts of problems. So I was very pleased to be one of the lucky recipients to be in the class this year, because we’re getting all sorts of help in scaling up our businesses and with e-commerce. They told us that there were over 9,000 applicants so I’m super honored to be among the 10 that were chosen. I’m still in shock.
How do you plan to grow your business through the program?
It’s a two-fold program, where one part is the $10,000 grant, which is amazing and will help you build your business and get through the challenge mentioned on your application. But the other part is the mentorship program. Each of us is assigned to a mentor with PepsiCo and Frito-Lay and those mentors are assigned to you based on the challenges you are facing. My mentors know a lot about e-commerce and customer data and so, even being able to have just an hour a week with them and ask questions and talk through things is amazing. (For example), I needed information about packaging — so now I’m going to have a meeting with the people who do packaging for Frito-Lay. They’re going to look at my packaging and say, “Hey, here’s what you should do” or “Here’s what you should change.” So it’s kind of like we have the full breadth of the company available to us during these 12 weeks to help us through our challenges.
Any other long-term plans for the company?
We are working on educating the consumer that you can go beyond breakfast. I’ve always thought that waffles are something you could walk with and you don’t need toppings on them. They’re great with toppings — but also if you want to toss them to the kids in the car seat while they’re on the way to school, or to take on the subway, or to pull out of your backpack when you’re hiking. We’re working on educating people that they can be enjoyed any time of day. I would just love to get out there. I see these other brands that are shipping nationwide and doing really well and I just think, why not me? Why not waffles? No one’s really doing that in that space and I just think that it’s a niche that we can fill.
We’ve learned so many lessons during the pandemic and one of those was: If not now, when? If there’s a thing that you’ve been waiting to try or do or experience, you’ve got to jump out there and do it.