Connector In Conversation With Marcela Sancho, The Creative Force Behind UAE's 'House of Pops'


Ice cream is a beloved treat with its flavours and toppings, catering to everyone's preferences, from classic vanilla to adventurous choices like mint and nutty blends. Yet, due to its high-calorie content, enjoying it daily isn't always feasible. Marcela Sancho and Mazen Kanaan, founders of UAE's popular popsicle brand House of Pops, faced this dilemma themselves. In 2018, as summer approached, Marcela and Mazen felt the need for a refreshing, guilt-free treat that wouldn't leave them feeling the need for a post-dessert workout. Experimenting in their kitchen with fruits on hand, they created House of Pops. These ice pops are made entirely from natural, plant-based ingredients, they are rich in fibre and free from artificial additives. Connector spoke with Marcela to understand the inspiration behind House of Pops, its diverse flavours, and the journey that led to its creation.

It All Started With A Layover In Dubai

Marcela, originally from Costa Rica, has a background in hospitality management and culinary arts, driven by a lifelong passion for food. Her journey took her from Thailand, where she spent six months, to France, where she pursued a baking course. En route to France, a 24-hour layover in Dubai unexpectedly captured Marcela's interest. Despite Dubai not being on her bucket list, she was drawn to its charm and hospitality during her brief visit. Inspired, Marcela decided to stay in Dubai for a year after completing her course with her partner Mazen, a seasoned food and beverage professional from Lebanon. 

Recognising a gap in the market for guilt-free ice creams, Marcela leveraged her culinary expertise to co-found House of Pops. Marcela began experimenting in her kitchen, drawing inspiration from her travels, Latin American flavours, and childhood favourites to create the flavours for their inaugural sale.

Two people, a small bike and a big dream, on 8 September 2018, they made their debut with a pop-up store at a farmer's market, marking the beginning of their journey in the food industry.

Adding to this Marcela said, "When we began, my partner Mazen and I noticed a lack of refreshing, guilt-free options in the market. Everything seemed indulgent and heavy. With the weather here, sometimes you just want something light and good for you. Our packaging is compostable, aligning with the strong health and environmental trends. We wanted to offer something that's both healthy and fun, quality ingredients ensure we deliver a delicious product without compromise."

Adding The Sustainability Factor 

While launching a guilt-free product is important, considering environmental sustainability while selling it is often overlooked. In the early days of House of Pops, they focused on filling a market gap with flavours and nutritional value, initially not prioritising sustainability. However, everything changed when they met a customer at the farmer's market, prompting them to rethink their approach and integrate sustainability into their core values.

Narrating the incident, Marcela recounts, "Initially, our focus was on creating something refreshing and as natural as possible, which was always our guiding principle. However, what shifted our perspective on sustainability happened a few weeks into our venture. It was during one of our farmer's market days when a customer approached us. We were discussing the absence of refined sugar in our ice pops when she expressed her concern about plastic packaging. She emphasised her preference for sustainable alternatives over sugar content. This interaction was a key moment for us, highlighting the growing demand for environmentally friendly products. It prompted us to rethink our approach and prioritise sustainability alongside nutritional value. Within two months, we found and implemented a sustainable packaging solution."

The Expo 2020 Moment

Further emphasising the significance of sustainability in our business model, Marcela highlights, "Sustainability holds immense importance for me from two critical perspectives. Firstly, if each of us embraces sustainable practices, even in small ways, the collective impact can be substantial as it becomes a big movement. This shift is already evident in how we prioritise sustainable products and reduce plastic use. Secondly, from a business standpoint, sustainability acts as a crucial entry requirement. Many suppliers, including us, are chosen based on our sustainability practices, like our eco-friendly packaging, which enabled our participation in Expo 2020 and facilitated our new factory expansion. Therefore, integrating sustainability isn't just a choice; it's essential ethically and strategically for long-term success and broader environmental benefits."

The Passion For Flavours And Combinations 

House of Pops offers more than 20 flavours starting at Dhs 20, featuring unique combinations to suit diverse tastes. However, developing these flavours and sourcing materials is not always easy. Marcela shares a glimpse into creating these combinations and securing the necessary ingredients and says, "Most of my flavours are inspired by Latin America, which is very close to my heart as a Costa Rican. My passion for our fruits guides my choices. I prioritise high-quality ingredients that meet my expectations, ensuring rich flavours like those I grew up with. For instance, a mango or pineapple must be flavourful and juicy. However, sourcing high-quality raw materials in this region can be challenging, affecting our production at times. Despite these challenges, my love for fruits drives me to deliver delicious and nutritious products."

The Sale Begins With A Trial 

In the competitive UAE market for sweets and indulgent desserts like ice cream, Marcela and Mazen initially faced challenges with the higher price point of House of Pops. Selling to big hotels and branches was not easy, but they persisted, encouraging customers and buyers to give their products a chance. They believed in the quality and taste, knowing that once people tried it, they would return for more orders. It all begins with a trial, and their persistence paid off as customers came back for repeat purchases. 

Speaking about the trials and sales Marcela adds, "Our entire marketing strategy revolves around encouraging people to try our products for the first time. Initially, convincing customers, including executive chefs in hotels, can be challenging. They often question why they should choose us over other ice creams in the market. However, once they taste our ice pops, their perception shifts completely. The focus is on this initial trial because it's crucial for us. Once people taste our product, they recognise its true value. Despite our higher price point, especially compared to other ice creams, post-pandemic, people are more health-conscious and seek nutritious options. They understand the benefits of consuming something good for them, making indulgence guilt-free."

Marcela On Shifting Perceptions Of Healthy Food In The UAE

"For me, it starts with the shelf space. Previously, you might have found just a few hand-picked vegan products in supermarkets. Now, there's a significant shelf space dedicated to vegan products that are high quality, delicious, and meet demand. This shift reflects a growing awareness among people in the UAE about health impacts and sustainability. Post-pandemic, especially, there's been a notable change towards choosing products that are kinder to both health and the environment."

Struggles That Come Along The Way

As a small business starting in an untapped market, you inevitably face negativity, challenges, and stress. However, Marcela believes it all comes down to mindset. She adds, "Entrepreneurship presents numerous challenges, but it's all about mindset. When starting, a hands-on approach and openness are crucial. Seeking advice, whether positive or negative, helps validate ideas and refine propositions. Not everyone will love your product, but feedback allows you to sharpen your offering. In the UAE's supportive community, reaching out for insights and connections helped us with unexpected solutions and growth opportunities."

With a purpose to delight the world with better choices, for a good life, House of Pops is all set for a geographical expansion. House of Pops is gearing up to launch gelatos and ice creams in cups, alongside exciting collaborations with major brands. Marcela wraps up the interview by sharing a message for aspiring entrepreneurs.

"Sometimes, you need to have faith in yourself, stay focused, and never accept rejection. This is crucial, especially for me, and I also draw it from a gender perspective. Women can sometimes doubt themselves and their abilities. So, don't hesitate; stay determined, connect with others, and seek advice. People are often more supportive and open to guiding you than you might realise. Confidence is key."

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