Dethroned (Part 2): King of Pops lost festival business while Decatur promoted Steel City Pops
A Decaturish investigation that included a review of more than 400 public records and numerous interviews showed that the city of Decatur actively promoted one popsicle company – Steel City Pops – over its Atlanta-based rival, King of Pops. This is the second part of a three-part series examining the city’s role in promoting Steel City Pops.
Other stories in this series:
When the city of Decatur decided to ban King of Pops from selling on the city Square because it wasn’t a local business, city officials said it wasn’t a total prohibition on the company selling in Decatur.
Shirley Baylis, the city’s Downtown Program Manager, said King of Pops could still vend at festivals.
“King of Pops can apply to vend at festivals,” Baylis said. “We do not make the decisions about who vends at festivals. The organizers of those festivals have that responsibility.”
What Baylis did not mention and what public records demonstrate is the amount of outreach the city did with the festivals on Steel City Pops’ behalf. King of Pops’ festival business in Decatur has dropped dramatically since Steel City Pops came onto the scene, the company says.
Steel City Pops officially opened in Decatur in the fall of 2017. But Decatur’s outreach to festivals began well before the company opened its brick and mortar store and production kitchen in the city, records show.
The city’s outreach wasn’t always successful, and festival organizers said they didn’t feel any pressure to pick one vendor or the other.
King of Pops saw its business in Decatur shrink from 2017 to 2018. According to the company, in 2017, King of Pops had 324 carts in Decatur. In 2018, it had 198 carts in Decatur, a nearly 40 percent reduction. Most of King of Pops cart sales occurred at the Decatur Farmers Market in 2018, the company said.
Steel City Pops declined to comment for this story.
The Arts Festival
In April 2017, a representative from Steel City Pops emailed the city to tell them that they had been denied an opportunity to vend at the Arts Festival that year. Assistant City Manager Lyn Menne emailed the Decatur Arts Alliance asking to talk with Premiere Events, the company that primarily handles food and beverage concessions at the Arts Festival and the Decatur Book Festival.
“Not sure what control you have over Rob at Premier Events, but we would really like to include Steel City Pops at the Arts Festival Instead of King of Pops,” Menne said. “Steel City is out of Birmingham and has a similar story to King of Pops. Since they are actually opening up their manufacturing plant in downtown Decatur later this summer along with a retail shop, we would like to use them.”
Soon after, Frazer confirmed that Steel City Pops would have a spot at the Arts Festival.
In May 2017, after the April 2017 email exchange about popsicle vendors at the Arts Festival, King of Pops messaged Macon asking why they were being turned down for a spot at the Arts Festival.
Macon forwarded that message to Catherine Lee, downtown development manager for the city of Decatur, and Menne.
“I’m sure [King of Pops] was denied because Steel City is going to be there. Do you want to ask Rob [with Premiere] if both can work? I think you could make an argument for two since the festival [footprint] is large enough, but it’s totally your call,” Lee wrote to Macon and Menne.
Menne responded, “I’d just make a clean break.”
Lee, who no longer works for the city, has not responded to numerous messages seeking comment for this story.
Eventually King of Pops was allowed a spot in the 2017 Arts Festival, the company said.
In a recent interview, Macon declined to comment on the contents of the emails obtained via Decaturish.com’s open records request.
“All I know is I opened the festival to both vendors, end of story,” Macon said. “… I do not handle food and beverage. Food and beverage are handled by Premiere Events.”
Frazer said he never felt any pressure from the city to use one vendor over another.
“By and large, they’ve left me completely alone to use my expertise to put the right people into the right places,” Frazer said. “I think there’s a desire on my part and the city’s that there’s a local business presence. When it’s made sense, I’ve done that. When it hasn’t made sense, I haven’t done that.”
King of Pops maintains a presence at the Arts Festival but had one cart this year instead of the two it has had in previous years, the company said.
The city’s efforts on behalf of Steel City didn’t stop with the Arts Festival, however.
While the city in May of 2017 was discussing how to handle King of Pops question about the Arts Festival, Baylis, the city’s Downtown Program Manager, emailed Frazer at Premiere Events about the Decatur Beach Party. She said the city didn’t want to use outside ice cream and smoothie vendors for the event, citing the city’s two ice cream shops and its new popsicle vendor.
A short time later, Frazer replied that both Steel City Pops and King of Pops would vend at the Beach Party in 2017.
Then there was the Book Festival.
In August of 2017, Frazer contacted Jack Roberson at Steel City Pops telling the company they wouldn’t be able to participate in the Book Festival that year. Roberson replied that Steel City’s brick and mortar store would open soon and said, “we have been planning on the Book Festival.”
Roberson reached out to Lee, who emailed Daren Wang, who was executive director of the Book Festival at the time.
“I think it’s important that we highlight our local food businesses at Decatur events and Steel City Pops will be opening up a 3,000 Square foot retail/manufacturing facility downtown this fall,” Lee told Wang.
Wang replied that King of Pops was a sponsor of the 2017 Book Festival and got exclusivity as a part of that sponsorship.
On Aug. 16, 2017, Lee sent an email to Macon instructing her about how to handle vending at future festivals. She told Macon that if King of Pops offered to sponsor the Arts Festival or Wine Festival in exchange for being the exclusive dessert vendor to let her know or “at the very least” give Steel City Pops a right of first refusal before accepting an offer from King of Pops.
“OK, let’s talk about this after the Book Festival,” Macon replied. “Would like to see how this goes with the Book Fest before we commit to exclusivity.”
When 2018 began, Steel City’s ability to vend at festivals was on Baylis’ radar. In February of 2018, she emailed Macon about a meeting to discuss the Arts Festival. She reiterated the city’s stance on sponsorships. She said if King of Pops offered to sponsor the Arts Festival “we do ask that you go to Steel City to see if they want to counteroffer before allowing [King of Pops] to be a sponsor.”
In April 2018, Steel City set up a cart at Oakhurst Jazz Night. King of Pops was there, too. Khoa Pham, a manager with Steel City, emailed Lee and Baylis.
“There was a King of Pops cart on the sidewalk, right next to the green space,” Pham said. “I think this diminished a fair bit of our potential business. We would love to have the opportunity to compete by having our cart on the sidewalk downstream from the King of Pops cart or on the other side of the green space.”
Lee apologized to Pham and said she had no idea. She asked Baylis for information about the person who runs Jazz Nights and said, “I’ll reach out to them about King of Pops.”
Menne chimed in. “OK. We need to pull the plug on King of Pops when you get back to the office.”
Lee replied, “Agreed. I need your help strategizing because I don’t want it to turn into a thing, if that’s possible!”
Baylis followed up and provided Lee with the contact information for Anne Clarke, who runs Jazz Nights. In full disclosure, Clarke has also freelanced as a writer for Decaturish.
Lee emailed Clarke a few days later to ask if King of Pops was a sponsor.
“If not, I would love it if you considered having Steel City Pops instead,” Lee told Clarke. “They’ve invested in the city of Decatur with their storefront and are working hard to get a local following.”
Clarke said she would reach out to Steel City about the 2019 Jazz Night.
Steel City eventually did become the sponsor for 2019. In a recent interview, Clarke said she did not feel pressured by the city to choose the company.
“I do not think the suggestion to use a local business constitutes pressure,” Clarke said.
In September of 2018, King of Pops emailed Batdorf and Bronson, the owner of Dancing Goats in Decatur, to see about securing a spot at their store during the West Ponce Music Stroll on Oct. 6 of that year. Initially, Batdorf said King of Pops was all set to vend at the event.
Then the city of Decatur intervened, emails show.
Nakeisha Glover with Batdorf emailed Baylis at the city to see if any additional paperwork was required for King of Pops to vend at the event. Baylis told Glover that Steel City Pops had requested to be part of the event “several months ago.” Glover told King of Pops she did not feel comfortable bringing in a competing brand to the event. Glover forwarded her response to King of Pops to Baylis.
“Thank you,” Baylis replied.
(Note: In the emails, Glover erroneously refers to Steel City as “Gate City.” She confirmed in a follow up interview that she meant Steel City.)
In a follow up interview, Menne said West Ponce Music Stroll differed from other events that happen in the city.
“It was organized by our office and staffed by Shirley Baylis in support of the business owners along the West Ponce corridor,” Menne said. “Shirley worked closely with a committee of those owners to plan and execute the event. We covered the cost of printing and marketing and handled all of the logistics for the event.
“It is similar to the Sidewalk Saturday events, Terrific Thursday events … and Small Business Saturday events that we organize and sponsor in support of our local businesses. These events aren’t organized by local non-profit organizations like the larger festivals. While we provide staff support and sponsor those larger events, West Ponce Music Stroll and the other events I listed above are organized and sponsored by this office specifically to focus on retail and restaurant business promotion. In those cases, we are the festival organizer.”
Prior to 2018, King of Pops said it was at nearly every event in Decatur. But after Steel City Pops opened, the company’s festival business in Decatur shrank. The company reported being shut out of the following events in 2018.
– Book Festival
– Beach Party
– Concerts on the Square
– 4th of July on the Square
– Tiny House Festival
– Oakhurst Jazz Nights
Organizers of the festivals said the city’s influence did not affect their decision to switch to Steel City Pops. Some said they were never contacted by the city about which vendor to use.
King of Pops still has a strong working relationship with the Decatur BBQ, Blues & Bluegrass Festival. The festival’s director, Michael Vajda, said the city contacted him asking the festival to switch to Steel City.
“The city contacted me last year, around June or July, and I had told them that King of Pops was already a partner and a long-standing partner. They just asked. They didn’t direct me but suggested that I consider Steel City Pops in the future because they are a Decatur-based business,” Vajda said. “That was the gist of it. I said, ‘Sure, I’ll consider them in the future.’ There wasn’t anything written or implied forcefully in my opinion.”
The city didn’t mention any other frozen dessert vendors located in Decatur, like Butter & Cream or Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.
“Just Steel City Pops,” Vajda said.
Will Johnston, organizer of the Tiny House Festival, said he wasn’t contacted by the city about letting Steel City Pops vend at the event in 2018. The festival moved to Atlantic Station this year. He said Steel City Pops signed on as a sponsor at the 2018 Tiny House event in Decatur .
“Steel City reached out to me and they were a part of my sponsorship,” Johnston said. “ … So, I just worked with them.”
An email from August 2018 between Baylis and Steel City Pops shows the city helped connect the company with the Tiny House Festival.
King of Pops was not at this year’s Amplify Decatur Music Festival Event as it was in prior years. Amplify went with Steel City Pops.
Mike Killeen, a board member with Amplify My Community which puts on the festival, says Steel City Pops reached out to the organization about sponsoring the event this year.
“The city has never had any input and influence on any of our vendors. Our vendors change year to year,” Killeen said. “Some come back, some change. It’s entirely based on context, what makes sense for the festival. Steel City Pops approached us and were willing to partner with us in ways we thought would help us raise more money and they were going to help out volunteers and artists as well. So that made sense. Nothing against King of Pops. They’ve been great to us as well. We want to work with them in the future.”
King of Pops has received conflicting messages about whether it will be able to vend the Book Festival this year, but the latest news is that it will be allowed one cart at the event. King of Pops says it had six carts at the Book Festival in 2017.
Julie Wilson, who took over the job as executive director of the Book Festival from Wang, said she did not get any pressure from the city to leave King of Pops out of the Book Festival in 2018 or limit its presence in 2019.
“They’ve not told me that specifically,” Wilson said. “I do know just being a product of this city and growing up in this city, that I do look to city-based vendors, but I have not been told that explicitly.”
She noted that Steel City was a sponsor at the Book Festival in 2018, much like King of Pops was a sponsor in 2017.
When asked how Steel City Pops became the sponsor for the event, Wilson said, “I got to know Steel City Pops myself. I liked them. I didn’t have the relationship with King of Pops. I kind of built my own relationship.”
She said the city of Decatur did not ask her to talk to Steel City about sponsoring the Book Festival.
“My decision to talk to Steel City was my own,” she said.
When asked if King of Pops would have the opportunity to vend at the Book Festival this year, Wilson said, “They can certainly go through the same process to sign up with Premiere Events.”
King of Pops co-founder Steven Carse said his company depends on vendor cart business at these events and festivals.
“Cart vending is a little less than half of our revenue and extremely important to our business,” he said.