Sara Fludd has come a long way.
From starting Pop Goes the Waffle as a pop-up tent in 2017 to expanding to a food truck in 2019, Fludd recently launched a brick-and-mortar business in March 2022.
Fludd’s authentic liège waffle business was developed after a lifelong love of baking and many culinary side hustles over the years.
The result is a successful business that offers delivery of the craft waffles nationwide as well as a storefront located in Gulfport, Fla. From a hot Cheeto-covered waffle dog to ube and lemon poppyseed liège, Fludd innovates on flavor and on format — you can even get a waffle subscription on Pop Goes the Waffle’s website.
We spoke with Fludd as she was in the process of opening her first storefront.
Where did your love of cooking and your passion for food come from?
I grew up in South Carolina, and food is central to everything we do as Southerners. One of my earliest food memories was making biscuits with my grandma. She had a milk crate that I could stand up on to be tall enough to touch the counter, and she’d give me biscuit dough to work with.
Farm to table was our life; we bought very few things at the grocery store. We grew all of our own produce, and my grandmothers baked all of our bread, so I grew up in a household where there wasn’t a lot of packaged foods. Food has always been how my family, and I think a lot of black families, show love.
My food journey has been my entire life. Officially, it began with my first job at 14 at a Wendy’s drive-thru in Conway, South Carolina. I worked in a lot of fast food places in high school and college and then started working more in fine dining. I worked at Phillips Flagship on the waterfront in DC for many years, which was a really great experience that introduced me to wine and elevated the game of me being a server.
Baking has always been my passion. It was always a side hustle, baking cakes for people and dessert bars. I’ve always had a day job, but I always had baking as a hobby.
Where do waffles enter the picture?
I love waffles and as I mentioned, we did not get a lot of prepackaged things growing up, but I have a childhood memory of going into a store and running to my mom and holding up a box of Eggo® waffles and, after her initially refusing to buy them, she did. My grandma always made pancakes from scratch every week, but I had never seen a waffle, so they became my go-to for special occasions.
With my own family, on snow days, if there was no school, we would make waffles. When I committed to that I did not realize how many snow days we were going to have, so we ended up making quite a few waffles! We eventually switched to making savory waffles instead of just sweet waffles. A lot of the flavors and combinations that we still use are things that my daughter and I came up with making those snow day waffles back in Connecticut.
As my daughter got older, we wanted to relocate to somewhere with warmer weather that was small business-friendly, which ended up being the Tampa Bay area. We started thinking about things to do on the weekend. Then on Instagram, I saw a waffle on a stick, or what they call a lolly waffle, in the U.K., and I thought that’d be the coolest food truck.
However, as the food truck was delayed, I discovered liège waffles — again on Instagram — and made them at home, and I thought they were amazing. That really became the foundation of the business versus the waffle pops.
How did you transition from the truck to a brick-and-mortar store?
Let’s go back even further. We started with a tent. The truck was taking so long to find that we were dragging around a portable generator with 20-pound waffle irons, a tent and tent weights. It was brutal.
It started with a small commissary because a big portion of my business is our wholesale trade. I’ve had a small commissary of my own for about three years and we’ve just outgrown it. There’s not enough room to scale. It’s in a strip mall. And it was really supposed to be an office, but there wasn’t enough electricity to power commercial equipment, which caused a variety of problems and was very frustrating.
We started looking for a space almost two years ago. Initially, the plan was to just find a bigger commercial kitchen so we would be able to scale our wholesale business. But during that process, we were able to find a building that was already scaled for a restaurant, and it actually has enough space so I can triple my production side and still have room for a small cafe upfront.
How was business during the pandemic?
We were very fortunate during the early part of the pandemic because we had our food truck, Blossom, to fall back on when wholesale business came to a halt. The shift to the food truck meant we were able to not lose revenue in 2020, but we certainly didn’t come anywhere near our projected revenue numbers.
As the pandemic continues, rising costs of ingredients (butter has doubled, eggs have tripled), paired with tremendous delays with major shipping companies have proved difficult to navigate.
As a woman of color, what challenges have you had to overcome in starting your own business?
I don’t know if I had any challenges specific to being a Black woman, but the biggest challenges in launching were a deficit of business knowledge. If you’ve never owned a business you don’t know about P&L statements, annual reports, and profit margins. There is a steep learning curve. Luckily, I was able to turn to the Small Business Development Corporation (which has offices nationwide) whose counselors helped answer my many questions and provide resources. Networking and finding local business mentors also helped greatly with obstacles I encountered early on.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to start a business?
Don’t be afraid to fail. When people see Pop Goes the Waffle they see the end result that only happened after many, many failed business attempts. There were the personalized chocolate bars for baby announcements and the little storks you put in the yard. I was making custom diaper baby cakes for baby showers. I mean, my poor husband has lived through 50 failed business ideas. There was the underground cupcake club. There was the toffee business. There were the custom dessert tables, the heritage cakes, I could go on and on. But I tell everyone, that this laundry list of failed businesses is what led me to where I am. Because with each one I learned; I got a little nugget of information. So when I finally got to the waffles, I felt like I knew what I was doing.
My first piece of advice is do your research. Make sure your idea can be profitable, because if you love it, but nobody’s buying it, or if it takes you 15 dollars to make and you can’t sell it for double that amount, then it’s a hobby. You have to separate your emotions from the decision and see if your idea could be a viable business.
Secondly, make sure that your market is not saturated with that idea. It could be a great thing, but if there are already people in that market, you have to fight for that market share. If you are going to start a business that has a lot of competitors in it, make sure that you have something special that’s going to bring people to your door that separates you from your competitors.
Also, find your weakest area — mine is accounting — and let that be the first thing you pay somebody else to do. As soon as you’re able to, get that off your plate. Because that’s going to free you up to do the other things.
Are there any recipes from your childhood that have inspired you today?
I have several family recipes because I come from a long line of bakers, but I use one in particular for waffles that were inspired by my mom. Coconut cream pie was my mom’s thing. I remember her making these pies with JELL-O pudding and whipping cream by hand. My coconut cream pie waffle has a vanilla liège waffle base, topped with a dollop of coconut cream, then I add toasted coconut, and just a sprinkle of graham cracker crumbs and whipped cream.
What do you think has been your biggest accomplishment?
My biggest accomplishment is leaving my cushy corporate gig and going all-in with Pop Goes the Waffle. For a risk-averse person such as myself, this was the biggest leap of my life. I’ve been punching the clock for other people for a long time. And I come from parents who believe you should punch that clock until you retire with a pension. It’s something that’s not done in my family, so I had to really break ties with my inner beliefs and just go for it by opening this cafe.