Welcome back to Inspired By…, Tostada Magazine’s occasional series where we interview the artists, innovators, and leaders who are working to make our foodways and communities a better place. Each dispatch, we aim to chat with an influential figure in one of Detroit’s many food and drink places and find out what inspires their world. For this edition of Inspired By…, contributor Steffi Cao talks with Carla Quarm, the founder and powerhouse behind Detroit’s very own Sweet Dreamz Creamery, a frozen popsicle business that offers vegan, four-ingredient “Pure Pops” as well as alcohol-infused “Tipsy Sticks.”
Carla Quarm is the mother you didn’t know you needed. Warm, inviting, and all no-frills business, I first met her when she was rocking one of her Sweet Dreamz Creamery t-shirts and lugging a cooler full of sample popsicles for my marketing class. She was determined to tell us all about Sweet Dreamz Creamery, and to get her vision for healthier eating off the ground. Passing around bags of vegan Pure Pops and alcohol-infused Tipsy Sticks, we sampled everything from cookies n’ cream to mango mimosa to Almond Joy to cherry wine. At first glance, the popsicles look like something you would find on an influencer’s Instagram feed: a rainbow of pinks and yellows, hand-drizzled in chocolate, accentuated with nuts and sprinkles that really makes you want to double tap. But the taste backs up what the looks are advertising: the rich, chocolate flavors are still decadent and creamy without needing any dairy (lactose intolerant community, are you sold yet?), and the fruity flavors are mellow and bursting with summertime flavor – the kind that makes you feel like you should be suntanning on a yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean, not hunched over a desk at 5 p.m. in your Persuasive Communications class. And as a true American kid who grew up associating ice cream and popsicles with Klondike bars and those deformed Spongebob pops, the knowledge that these popsicles were healthy and delicious made me all the more excited.
While the popsicles are delicious, it’s Carla’s story that has always been the most enrapturing aspect of Sweet Dreamz Creamery. Incepted in 2017, Detroit-based Sweet Dreamz Creamery was determined to bring joy for everyone who cannot have the nostalgic sugary treats found everywhere in supermarket frozen food aisles. Carla, a former QuickenLoans employee who had lost her job in the loan industry, saw an opportunity to do what she always dreamed of: open a dessert shop. But she didn’t want to just open the same old ice cream shop – her two daughters had allergic reactions to processed sugars and foods, and saw similar reactions among friends’ children, as well as larger obesity and health concerns in many of the communities in Detroit. So she got a freezer in her living room and sat down with some popsicle molds, and started selling to friends and family. Soon, her daughter Zaria came back from her dance career in New York to help her mother, and younger teenage daughter Jessica starting chasing customers down to try their pops. When the treats started selling more, they hired on three more team members during the summer months to help keep up with demand. They secured a space in Detroit’s Eastern Market and began emptying their cooler every week. Carla applied for a funding and mentorship program supporting new businesses from her old employer, and soon began catering events in their Detroit offices, and will soon receive a customized cart to carry her supply of treats. But the mission is the same: whether it’s the vegan “Pure Pops” or alcohol-infused “Tipsy Sticks,” Sweet Dreamz Creamery aims to look out for everyone and get their local community to eat right.
For 30 very enlightening minutes, Tostada Magazine spoke with Carla about her Detroit-based business, being a female Black entrepreneur, as well as her thoughts on healthy food, gentrification, and advice for young women who want to follow in her footsteps.
Tell me a little about yourself and Sweet Dreamz Creamery. How did this idea come about?
“Sweet dreams” was a saying that my daughter used to say before going to bed. I always thought it would be pretty cool name for an ice cream shop. And when she was getting older, maybe five or six, I noticed that she had a lot of issues with and reactions to sugar. So I did some research about refined sugar and organic sugar and tried both, and it was just night and day in how her body would react. I started making little frozen treats for her, and it kept her happy and going, and I thought again how amazing it would be to have an ice cream shop.
In 2017, that was my do or die moment, and I thought okay, I am going to do this. I lost my job, and I was tired of the mortgage world. It’s a dark, dark world. And I was going on a limb. I subleased out of a sweet shop, and started doing a lot of gelato and sorbet. Then a place nearby started selling ice cream. I was like, oh my goodness. Direct competition is never good. But my takeaway was that I didn’t realize there were so many kids that had allergens. So many people have diet restrictions. So I left there, and said, I’m going to reinvent myself. I want to make something healthy, something organic, and really good. At our first corporate event, a lady was in tears because she had celiac [disease], and nobody thinks about those types of eaters and the restrictions they have. And that became my mission, to do more research on blood levels and allergens. When we took off last year and introduced our popsicles, so many kids with allergies were able to have and enjoy them – really everyone was able to enjoy a frozen treat.
Being a core team of three women of color – you and your two daughters – have you encountered any obstacles or barriers to starting and running your own business? What advice would you have for young WoC who want to take on a similar venture?
Some advice I have for people coming into this arena of dessert is that, you get looks. There’s a lot of questions. People hold up the line with their surprise that a woman of color can come up with gelato products, or even know about gelato. I’m always real with my daughters about the importance of diversity. One of my daughters is a dancer, and I always tell her that you have to persevere. You can’t let the noise get to you. Ignore it. It’s a struggle, but I don’t let it get me down. I kept going, knocking on doors and kicking down doors. I do my research and really know my product. I do a lot of research because I know there will be obstacles and the questions people will have for me. I prepare myself and stay knowledgeable.
So my advice for any young girls of color is to keep going. Follow your passion, follow your passion, follow your passion. The money will come. Know your product and know your service. Research it, because people will come at you trying to trip you out, trying to find that one flaw. And I do feel that as a person of color, I have to go over the top with my customer service. It’s a pride of ours. I want people of all colors, of all generations, to come back to us. We have never had a bad review on our customer service. If you follow your passion, it won’t be easy. But nothing in life you want to happen is going to be easy. You’re going to have to scratch and claw to get to the top, but do it with integrity and pride, and do it with passion.
What do you think is unique and/or important about the Detroit food scene?
I didn’t know until last year when I had to do my analysis that we are number five on top vegan food scenes, and I think Ann Arbor is number four. I didn’t know we were forerunners of the vegan scene! So it’s pretty exciting to be a part of that community. It’s exciting to be able to offer healthy products that are fun and delicious at the same time, and to know that our city is number five – it threw me for a loop a little bit! But it makes me happy to be a Detroit foodie.
How do you hope to serve your community with Sweet Dreamz Creamery?
Oh, wow – getting people to eat healthier! Especially in our community, there’s a lot of people with diabetes and high blood pressure. I want them to know there is an alternative for you out there. You don’t need to eat the unhealthy stuff. We’re developing products with date sugar now, and the research shows that date sugar doesn’t raise blood levels for diabetics. I want people to know that a product is out there that you or your child can have.
One of my goals is to work closely with children’s hospitals, providing them with healthy treats. My first husband passed away from cancer, so I know that sugar feeds cancer. I want to offer products for young kids, that’s fun and tasty but won’t hurt their progress in getting healthy. And like I said before, I hope to create a scholarship program for high school seniors. Even if it’s not $32,000, something to pay for their tuition or books – any little bit helps! I really want to work with youth programs even to just develop health awareness for them.
I would love to see more affordable housing, instead of these high rises coming up in neighborhoods where people have to decide between rent, food or gas on a daily basis. I always said if I ever have a company, I want to be able to give back. We hire seniors and want to give scholarships to high schoolers in the near future, where they can also work for us in their last year or junior year, and help them that way. This year I hope to do a lot more, especially speaking to minorities and girls of color. Like, when I was growing up, it was all, “go to school to get a job”. Now, I tell my girls to get their education, but have some of their own. Build your own business. So I think it’s very important regarding gentrification to push people of color and our local neighborhoods to have their own businesses.
This article was made possible by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, that’s working to increase quality journalism and help better inform communities.
Author: Steffi Cao
Steffi Cao is a student at the University of Michigan studying communications, with a focus on media diversity and representations of Women of Color. Besides writing (a lot) about issues pertaining to Asian-Americans, she is passionate about politics, performing arts and education. She hopes to work in the media industry or teach at the university level.
Find her on Twitter and Instagram @steffay_ !